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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

CdA martial artist Sarah Paul perseveres to fight in main card of Spokane Submission Series Saturday

By Charlotte McKinley The Spokesman-Review

Concussions nearly got the best of Sarah Paul. In fact, it looked like the 24-year-old might never fight again.

One way or another, she keeps getting back on the mat.

Paul will continue her competitive career Saturday and be featured in the fourth match on the Spokane Submission Series main card at the Spokane Convention Center. The newly minted black belt will face Seattle’s Yelena Badicke in an 8-minute no-gi fight. The event starts at 6 p.m.

For Paul, who started fighting at age 9, getting back into jiu-jitsu seemed an unlikely possibility in 2021 after suffering a bad concussion while training. Prior to that, she suffered a few injuries in her late teen years, most of which she said were also concussions.

“I had fought a lot of wrestlers when I was young and I had gotten slammed a lot unintentionally,” Paul said.

After some patience, rigorous training and a little soul searching, Paul is back and looking forward to competing against the brown belt Badicke on the area’s biggest professional jiu-jitsu stage.

“(For Yelena) to be somebody of a long-time training as well as someone that’s so versatile in what they do for hobbies, I’m excited to see what that’s going to come up like,” said Paul, a Coeur d’Alene native.

Paul is no stranger to competition. Starting early, she won so many gold medals she admits she lost count.

“I did my first tournament six weeks into training,” Paul said. “I had seven boys in my bracket at white belt, and I only lost one fight. I won every single other one (and) I took second.”

Right after, Paul decided jiu-jitsu was her calling and wanted to take it as far as she could go.

“I remember the first time I put on a gi, and I actually put my pants on backward because I was so excited,” Paul said.

It wasn’t long before she started training for Pan American Kids – the biggest youth tournament in the world.

“When I won, I remember just standing there when my arm was raised and I was just beaming with joy,” Paul said.

The joy she had for the sport never waned, despite the difficulties life threw her way.

Paul suffered her first major concussion at 15 in a nonsport-related incident.

Not knowing how to treat a concussion properly, Paul never fully healed and accumulated more concussions.

Her most serious concussion occurred in 2021 during a normal training session when Paul was accidentally kicked in the head.

“A little kick to the head usually doesn’t make someone pass out,” Paul said. “For me being so susceptible (to concussions), it did.”

Paul immediately forgot who hit her and did not realize she had been hit. She continued rolling for two more rounds and was choking her partner from the top position when she passed out.

“I woke up about 20 minutes later to everyone around me trying to get me to wake up,” Paul said, grateful for the paramedic and nurses who were her training partners.

After being rushed to the hospital, Paul was told she would never train again due to the threat of a serious brain injury.

“When you hear something like that about something that you love so much … it’s devastating,” Paul said. “I’ll never forget that night that I was told that because something clicked in my brain to where I was like, I don’t believe this is true.”

Knowing that one day she would be on the mats again, Paul never gave up hope.

Her late professor, Derek Cleveland, believed she could not only make it back to the mats, but return to competition.

“We’re gonna get your back on the mats somehow and we’re going to figure it out. We’ll change your whole game if we have to,” Paul recalled Cleveland saying.

“I thought, ‘Man, if he believes we can do this, then I believe we can do this, too,’ ” Paul said.

After months of watching and taking notes from the sidelines during class, Paul eased herself back into training.

“I couldn’t do much,” Paul said. “Every once in a while, I would show something or teach something because I was still a brown belt and people wanted my advice.”

The moment she started feeling better, Paul started taking private lessons with Cleveland to change her game to where it was advantageous and safe for her.

“I totally, confidently thought I would never get on a competition mat again, even though Derek was determined we would,” Paul said.

Tragedy struck a few months later when Cleveland died from a heart attack.

“I couldn’t imagine living without (Cleveland),” Paul said, mentioning how important the father figure was in her life.

His death came right before Paul had to go into surgery to remove a tumor from her abdomen.

“I had six weeks after that to recover,” Paul said. “I took that time to just focus on what God was trying to tell me in this time of grief, pain, loss and waiting.”

Although she patiently waited, the moment she could step on the mats again, she did.

Needing a new gym at which to train, she settled on Coeur d’Alene Jiu-Jitsu with professor Shawn Lawrence, whom she had known since she started training.

Throwing herself into training, Paul soon felt ready for her first tournament since her concussion.

“I remember I took gold that day,” Paul said.

“Honestly, it wasn’t a win-or-lose type of thing … I just wanted to compete because I loved it.”

Paul is ready to take on Badicke in her debut black belt match.

“I’m super excited for it,” Paul said. “She seems like a really awesome, worthy opponent.”

The no-gi matchup will showcase technical and exciting jiu-jitsu from two Pacific Northwest athletes on the big stage – one of the goals of the event.

“We get to give local athletes that opportunity,” Lawrence said. “But it takes a community to support it.”

The Spokane Submission Series 2 can be watched live at the Spokane Convention Center starting at 6 p.m. or streamed live on Tickets are available through TicketsWest.