COLUMBUS, Ohio – When Wendy Kuhn first walked into a Brazilian jiu-jitsu class seven years ago, she didn’t know what to expect. She had no idea she would become a world champion.
Tech. Sgt. Kuhn, an Ohio Air National Guard public affairs specialist at the 121st Air Refueling Wing, said she had been looking for a new way to stay active since going to the gym had become boring.
“I thought about trying something like kickboxing,” she said. “I wanted to do something fitness in nature, but not self-defense or combat sports.”
She said a friend recommended a gym.
“I go in, and they are not kickboxing; they are rolling on the ground,” she said. “I was a little concerned with that, and I was actually tempted to leave.”
Kuhn tried a couple of classes the gym offered, and she realized she preferred jiu-jitsu, which focuses on grappling and ground fighting, compared to Muay Thai, which involves striking.
“I became obsessed with going,” she said. “And the more I got into it, the less it was about being fit. It has made me appreciate more what my body is capable of and not so much what it looks like.”
Three months after Kuhn started practicing jiu-jitsu, she competed in her first tournament. She said she both loves and hates tournaments.
“I love them because every time I prepare for one, I increase my skills,” she said. “During the intense training two months out, my skill goes through the roof. And even if I don’t do well in a tournament, I know I gained more skill.”
The part she hates is how nervous she gets before a tournament.
“I love the preparation; I love the camaraderie,” she said. “My team and my military family are a great support. I get very nervous that I’m not going to do well and that I’m going to let everybody down even though I know that’s not the case.”
She realized that even if she didn’t do well in a tournament, the mistakes were correctable, and she gained the skills to improve.
In 2018, she competed in Las Vegas in the World Master International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) Jiu-Jitsu Championship. She received bronze in her division, but she said she felt like she had given up while competing.
Kuhn returned to Las Vegas in 2021 with new goals. Her determination paid off, and Kuhn was named the world champion in her division.
“It was probably one of the top 10 moments in my life,” she said. “I didn’t expect to win.”
Kuhn is the first person from her gym, Grove City Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy, to win a world championship. In 2022 she competed again at the IBJJF Jiu-Jitsu Championship, and she said she felt the pressure of last year’s experience.
“My mind told me that if I lose, last year was a fluke,” she said. “Maybe I just had a good day.”
She won again and became the Master Four Purple Belt World Champion for a second time. When she returned home, she was surprised to be promoted to brown belt.
Chief Master Sgt. Troy Taylor, the Ohio Air National Guard command chief and former 121st ARW command chief, also trains at Grove City Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy.
“Of the thousands of people in Ohio and millions who train worldwide, only a handful have become world champions, let alone a two-time world champion,” said Taylor. “Sgt. Kuhn is a testament to perseverance, effort and her ability to focus on achieving her inspirational goal. Many have tried, but few have achieved what Sgt. Kuhn has. Ohio is proud of her!”
Kuhn said she was told that just since last year she seems to have much more confidence in the decisions she makes on the mat.
“I’m more assertive on the mat, and I feel like it’s helped me be more assertive in my personal life,” she said. “That is sometimes hard for me.”
Learning to be assertive is a skill that has also helped Kuhn in her military career. As a public affairs specialist, she has to interact with people she may not know or whose rank or title may be intimidating.
“Jiu-jitsu helps me with that, and I know I just have to do this,” she said. “I’m going to step on the mat even though I’m terrified I could stink today and everybody will see it. I have to do this anyway.”
She said she is now better able to approach people in uncomfortable situations to get the information she needs for her job.
“I feel like I’m more able to jump out of my comfort zone because jiu-jitsu is about being comfortable being uncomfortable,” she said.
“Brazilian jiu-jitsu is one of the greatest overall development tools that has been a constant in my life,” said Taylor. “It forces you to solve complex challenges in a dynamic environment that immediately provides both physical and mental feedback. Jiu-jitsu restores your resiliency and teaches you how to remain calm under intense pressure.”
Kuhn said during stressful situations, she used to freeze and wouldn’t be able to respond fast enough. Now she can center herself and think about what needs to be done first to move forward.
“I wish I’d have had that ability earlier,” she said. “I feel like it helps me work through stressful times in my life.”