By Ashley Farlow
Photos by Keith McCoy
Elaine Beiersdoerfer’s seven grandchildren call her “Maine,” a combination of Mom and Elaine, and frequently attend “Granny Camp,” where Elaine hosts them on her farm in Calera. There they learn everything from riding horses to sewing a button, science experiments to making homemade biscuits. She even taught them a line dance in her equestrian riding ring that she had also taught to—her horse! But when she’s not called Elaine, Maine or Mom, she has another that she did not see coming: Jiujitsu Grandma.
Elaine, at now 72 years old, is a blue belt in jiujitsu, and currently ranked third in the world in her division, grappling around at prominent competitions with competitive athletes all younger than her.
When she was 20 years old, she started her martial arts journey when she took a six-week judo class to try something new while her husband was earning his master’s degree. She didn’t pick it back up until the age of 69 when she became aware of Gracie Barra Alabama in Pelham, who she called in February 2018 and asked, “Do you have a class for old people?”
Attending her first judo class as a senior citizen, Elaine joined the line teenage boys and men. They appeared more nervous than she was, not because they knew she’d soon become a famed face in jiujitsu but because they were scared to “break her.” “It’s ok!” she told them and gave it her best. She perhaps gained some of her grit from growing up with two older brothers with whom “rough and tumble” was customary.
On his first impression, Kaliffa Oliveira, owner and head instructor at Gracie Barra Alabama, says Elaine had him puzzled when she walked in, all 5 feet, 108 pounds of her at 69 years old. “We have a big sign that says, ‘Jiu-Jitsu for Everyone,’ but it was challenging since I had never had anyone near her age.” Oliveira, who established the martial arts studio in Pelham in 2012, did his research and found one other competitor in her 60s in Hawaii, and he took the same methods to begin training Elaine, who he had guided to switch from the combative, throwing bodies of judo to the grappling, ground fighting of jiujitsu. “She learned very fast, and she is very dedicated. She even shows up twice a day sometimes,” he says. Oliveira, who has students ages 4 to 72 (Elaine), is the only certified jiujitsu and judo black-belt in the Birmingham area.
Elaine definitely comes from a family of athletes. “But I am the only one who is not one,” she notes, clarifying she never played sports. Professor Oliveira disagrees though. “In this sport, you get a finger twisted or a bruise and see people give up,” he says. “She always comes back, always keeps training, and that’s an athlete.” Elaine fought in her first competition at age 70, where she had four matches in 70 minutes and won one, lost one and tied two.
Oliveira does coach Elaine differently than his younger students though. “I tell the younger guys, ‘Go hard, don’t stop,’ and I tell her, ‘Be smart, don’t rush.’ She’s a very good listener and very coachable.” Elaine even records instruction on video so she can go home and re-watch and practice.
“I thought I was in better shape, until my first class,” says Elaine. “I couldn’t get my breath, but I didn’t want anyone to think I was a wuss, and that was just after the warm-up.” Since then she has watched her body become stronger, her balance improve, and her mental toughness increase. “I get nervous before the fights,” she acknowledges, “but once I step on the mat, I’m good.” Jiujitsu is a very mental sport, and her strong-as-an-ox mentality stands out and now has taken her to compete worldwide.
“When [Professor Oliveira] first said he wanted me to compete at Worlds, I said, ‘You’re kidding!’” Elaine says. At that time, she hadn’t even earned her blue belt, a must for Worlds. He also encouraged her to create an Instagram account showcasing her jiujitsu, which her granddaughter McKenzie, a Samford student-athlete, happily created for her. That’s when the “Jiujitsu Grandma” title stuck. By the time Elaine arrived at Worlds (which with her unwavering mind-set she did), she had thousands of Instagram followers (16K as of writing) and was hounded for pictures, international interviews, and experienced true fanfare—all much to her gratitude and delight.
Even though Elaine is still somewhat new to martial arts, she isn’t new to brave adventures. In her 20s she parachuted out of an airplane by herself not long after she married Werner Beiersdoerfer. “He always said, ‘You want to do it? Go ahead!” Elaine and Werner have now been married more than 50 years, and he says he’s always been her biggest fan. “She is strong where I am weak,” he says. “We really do complete each other in the way God knew we needed.”
Werner is not surprised a bit by his wife’s success. “When she sets her mind to something, she does it, and she knows I am going to support her.” An athlete of high achievement himself, (a long distance runner for Auburn University and past coach at Vestavia and Birmingham schools), Werner doesn’t give her any pointers, but at every match, full of nerves and pride, he hollers and cheers her on like he did for their kids at their countless sporting events growing up. He never missed a kid’s meet, match, or game and he’s never missed any of Elaine’s either. He can often be found being asked to take a picture when people overcome with excitement meet the “Jiujitsu Grandma.”
Elaine is humbled by all those she inspires. “I do hear from a lot of people who are older, but the most messages are from people in their 30s and 40s who think they’re too old to do something until they see me,” she says. She also hears from foinrs who say seeing her compete gives them hope that getting older doesn’t mean sitting in a rocking chair.
Her age does come with its challenges though. Elaine has booked her share of chiropractic care and orthopedic appointments to keep her body moving well and to tend to any injuries. One of the orthopedics she visits has a poster of her hanging in his office that reads, “Not too old and not too late!”
Any given week Elaine trains 3 to 4 hours and is usually covered in bruises. “But if I stopped every time I got hurt, I wouldn’t ever do it,” she says. Werner references the old TIMEX commercials when he describes her, “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” When she’s not training, she still doesn’t seem to stop moving either—relaxing by horseback riding, which she says loosens her back, or walking one of her many dogs from Sanctuary Animal Rescue, which her two daughters, Brittney Hogue and Heidi Stubbs, operate locally.
Her daughter Brittney, who at one point was the sole female, the running back, for Shelby Academy JV football (doesn’t that sounds like her mother’s spirit?). “She has taught her children to reach for the stars and follow our dreams, to persevere through it all,” Brittney says, adding that the Biblical passage Proverbs 31:25 sums up her mother, “She is clothed with strength and dignity and she laughs without fear of the future.”
Elaine’s son Brock Beiersdoerfer, who with his wife Kimberly owns local hit Heavenly Donuts, says he’s really proud of her and happy for her. “She’s always amazed at the comments she gets from people all over the world. But she has never been someone to grow old quietly,” says Brock.
Elaine’s daughter Heidi has always known her mom was an “easy to love” thrill-seeker, but she admits even her jiujitsu interest was shocking at first. “She’s doing things most 40-year-olds don’t want to attempt,” Heidi says. During Heidi’s son’s first football game, she nervously watched him and at the same time was streaming live on her phone her 70-year-old mom fighting in her first jiujitsu competition in Los Angeles. She admits she and her siblings have had their share of uneasiness watching her compete, but that they all couldn’t be prouder of their mom, and they think it’s been great for her.
Elaine has taken a few of her grandkids to class too. “They thought it was a little hard,” she says with a laugh. “It’s cute…I think they think it’s cool. And I’ve taught them self-defense.” One young granddaughter who was watching her “Maine” fight the black-belt professor, said appallingly, “I will never do this.”
Heidi says that there seems no better time than now to encourage others—especially as the senior community has been hit hard in so many ways throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. So, next time you, your teen, a friend, or maybe a parent or grandparent are feeling low—hit the search icon on Instagram and type “Jiujitsu Grandma,” and you just may just be inspired to set a new goal and to work hard to reach it no matter your age or stage.