Only two weekends ago a young, lesser-known grappler made waves in the grappling world by winning the qualifier tournament to the ADCC World Championship – which will take place in September 2022 in Las Vegas, USA – arguably the most sought ticket in the sport today. That athlete’s name is Eleftheria Christodoulou, a jiu-jitsu brown belt from Cyprus, a small island country in the eastern Mediterranean sea.
Famous for being one of Europe’s favorite Summer vacation destinations, Cyprus is not particularly known for its production of grappling talent, something that may be about to change through Miss Christodoulou, the daughter of refugee parents from the northern side of the Island who fled to the city of Larnaca when the Turkish army invaded the country in 1974.
Although flying under the radar of many jiu-jitsu fans, the ADCC European Trials was not Eleftheria’s first big win, not by a long shot. In fact, Christodoulou has been at the forefront of the sport, in the colored belt divisions, since 2017 when she won double gold at the IBJJF European No-Gi Championships in the blue belt division and double bronze in the gi variant of the Euros. Since that amazing debut year in the IBJJF circuit, the Cypriot has conquered double gold medals at the European Open in 2019 and 2020, double gold at No-Gi Euros again in 2019, and her first Pan American jiu-jitsu title last year in the brown belt division.
Despite her lengthy resume in the sport, Eleftheria only picked up BJJ in 2016, after a lifetime of playing more traditional sports competitively such as volleyball, Olympic weightlifting, and even a 3-year stint in Shotokan karate as a child, where she picked up a black belt.
The reasons for starting jiu-jitsu when she did were slightly unusual. When asked what drove her to the sport by BJJ Heroes earlier this month there was no: Inspired by Royce/UFC, type quote. Instead, Christodoulou simply answered: “I wanted to start something new for the holidays for one month“.
Under the instruction of Panayiotis Melodias of Renzo Gracie Strovolos Academy (Nicosia) that month quickly turned into a long-term affair as the sport became a valuable asset to Eleftheria’s quality of life. “At the time I was studying Architecture at the University of Cyprus in Nicosia,” said Christodoulou about her early days in BJJ, “I knew deep inside that I wanted something meaningful and of value for myself and my life, but I hadn’t found it yet. After 6 months of training, I started to develop some concepts that were life-changing and elevating for me“.
Another key element for Elefheria’s development as an athlete was her training partner in Cyprus, Venizelos Athinodorou, someone Christodoulou described as her biggest inspiration in jiu-jitsu for his love of grappling: “A self-taught practitioner who showed me the beauty of the sport. He dedicates all his time to train and learn to become the best version of himself” said the current ADCC Trials Champion. Venizelos was also, in part, responsible for one of Eleftheria’s biggest career decisions.
“I moved to Ukraine in 2019. I went for a Summer camp with Venizelos that year and decided that if I wanted to take my competitive career seriously I needed to move out of the country to live and train abroad. That meant I should quit my job as an architect and all the comforts I had in my warm and sunny Cyprus and go live in the unknown, in Ukraine.”
The project Eleftheria referred to was that of Ievgen Skyrda in the town of Kropyvnytskyi, Ukraine. One of the most important jiu-jitsu academies in Eastern Europe whose work BJJ Heroes covered a little over a year ago (read by clicking here).
A few months after she attended Skyrda’s Summer camp in Kropyvnytskyi, Eleftheria applied for a scholarship in Ukraine at Ievgen’s ZR Team Academy. “Skyrda presented this opportunity on his Instagram page when he posted that he would host athletes from Ukraine for free if they wanted to work hard to become champions. When he announced this project, I don’t think he imagined that he would get a girl from a totally different country“, Christodoulou said of that time.
Arriving as a purple belt, Christodoulou earned her brown belt in Ukraine, where she lived for nearly two years. She returned to Cyprus just a few months before the 2022 Russian invasion took place but still communicates regularly with her teammates in Kropyvnytskyi: “We keep in touch, of course. The Russian army ‘only’ bombed Kropyvnytskyi’s military bases so everybody is OK. Coach Ievgen and the team are hosting refugees from other cities that were attacked and are in danger, providing them free food and accommodation. They stopped training for two months but are now getting back on track.” Said the Cypriot of her Easter European teammates.
Now settled back in the motherland, Eleftheria is training with Louis Charalambous at the ZR team Larnaca (Trojans Fight Club) where she was once again reunited with her favorite training partner, Venizelos Athinodorou. “We [ Eleftheria & Venizelos] train alone late at night after he finishes his job and after we finish the standard classes at the gym and during weekends. Real work and progress have been made with him. Also part of my training is Andreas Krassas, my judo coach, and Orestis Leonides who is my wrestling coach“. These were the tools utilized to conquer one of the biggest grappling events on European soil, a minute selection of quality training partners, far away from the juggernaut teams of our sport, shielded by sheer willpower, talent, and hard work. So far this winning formula is undeniable. At the ADCC European Trials alone, Eleftheria had a berserker run of 5 victorious matches, taking out big names of the sport such as IBJJF World silver medalist and 2x No-Gi Pan champion Maria Malyjasiak, England’s rising talent Mia Blackman, and European champ (gi & no-gi) Ane Svendsen, a truly remarkable campaign which has us, the fans, counting the days for the big ADCC showdown in September.
Original cover photo by Xanthe, follow her work on Instagram @xanthe.photos