From time to time we like to shine some light on BJJ’s humanitarians, people who work behind the scenes to better the lives of others through our sport. Last week we brought you Sam Crook and his work with underprivileged children in Cameroon. Today we bring you Nico Ball and the amazing job she has done for the Terere Kids Project.
Nicole Ball, known by the jiu-jitsu community as Nico Ball is a unique figure in Jiu-Jitsu. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she found her interest for grappling in Virginia, a path that ultimately led her 1000s of miles away from home, to Brazil, where she helped transform the lives of many children, at the famous Terere Kids Project (TKP).
Originally Nico’s interest lied with mixed martial arts (MMA), but she soon saw the value of grappling inside the cage and decided to go straight to the source for her training – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The legendary Connection Rio hostel was Ball’s first link with the Marvelous City. The guest house belonged to an American black belt Dennis Asche and, for many years, was The place to go, if you were a ‘gringo’ looking to train in Rio, as it made the bridge between grappling students from all over the world, and the finest BJJ gyms in the (then) Mecca of jiu-jitsu.
At the time of her arrival, Nico was a white belt and had very limited knowledge of the sport as her focus was still linked with MMA: “I moved to Rio because I wanted to get better at jiu-jitsu so I could go pro in MMA. I really wanted to train at Nova Uniao with Claudia Gadelha, that was my dream. I was also really interested in the social work that Kyra Gracie was doing with Kapacidades at the time. I sent her a message on Facebook and it was actually her that responded telling me about Connection Rio which allowed me to make the trip happen. I met Claudia at Connection Rio as well. She got me onto the pro team at Nova Uniao, so really these two played a major role in getting me to where I am today.” Said Ball in an interview with BJJ Heroes in July 2019.
The contact with Tererê came during her first month in Brazil, although she, admittedly, had no idea of who Fernando Tererê was. Saying of that first exposure to the BJJ legend: “I met a blue belt at the hostel that came from England specifically to train with Tererê, he was the one that first introduced me to the FT academy in Ipanema. (…) At the time I honestly had no clue who Terere was, so I refused to take a 45-minute bus ride to the academy. I finally agreed to go before my first competition and signed up after one class. He was legit that good of a teacher. Once the 3 months that I had paid for at Connection Rio was up, I moved into the Favela and slept on the floor at Terere’s secretary’s house.”
The appreciation for Tererê and his work was instant, but Nico’s role with the Terere Kids Project – an association led by Fernando in the Cantagalo Slum, RJ, which helps keep the local children occupied when off school, away from crime, and invested in sports, was not immediately clear to her. “I started working with the academy by helping them translate for foreigners that needed to pay for classes and buy merchandise.” From this simple function inside the team spawned an idea that forever changed the project for the better: “When Terere was gone for an extended period of time traveling, there was a noticeable decline in attendance to the kid’s classes, money for the snack programs and other things around the academy. Students who were visiting said their friends back home would be more than willing to contribute to the project if they knew how, so I made a blogger account, signed up for Paypal and asked for any and everything they need on my own personal Facebook account. I put out monthly blogs with interviews from the kids, messages from Terere, and pictures of what donations bought.” A simple step that brought massive change: “We functioned like that for a while. Super basic but it got the kids fed and the competitions paid for.”
From the many success stories out of the Terere Kids Project, champions and whatnot, when asked which story touched her the most, Nico points to a kid nicknamed ‘Moleza’ (Easy) as one of her proudest achievements: “When he [Moleza] was 15, I used to wake up to texts from Germany, England, Poland, California, Alabama, and New York asking me why this kid is asking for money! It was always to compete, and his requests worked. He made it all the way to Brazilian Nationals [in São Paulo] one year after we told him the project couldn’t sponsor him. He was at the gym every day, even the day after his father passed away. He cried and then still showed up to compete with us that Saturday, jiu-jitsu was his form of therapy.” By the time he reached his late teens, the youngster started gaining dangerous habits. Missing school, getting into fights and “smoking weed“, but the TKP staff never abandoned him, and always tried their best to keep him on the project. “A lot of kids stopped training and were out smoking weed on the streets, joining gangs, or just out robbing people at the beaches, and the majority of these kids were getting beat up, locked up, or shot up. At the very least, Moleza was always at the gym and his mom always had someone to call. Now, he’s cooled down at home and he’s working, training, and paying for his own competitions. So, in the last 5 years, I’ve gotten to see this kid grow up mess up, but both he and his family developed this amazingly strong bond that has helped get him through his teenage years. I think that’s a better measure of success then the number of kids that we sent to compete this year and how many World Champion titles we have.”
With the success of her work, Ball soon became the executive director of the TKP organization, and in 2016, after she moved back to the United States, Ball incorporated the Terere Kids Project as a 501(c)3 in Washington, D.C.
Alongside her work with the TKP, Nico has also created the Favela Jiu-Jitsu platform, a project built separately from the Terere Kids Project, hoping to broaden her work’s reach. “I created Favela Jiu-Jitsu because I saw the impact that accesses to the English-speaking media had on Terere Kids Project. I was able to do so much for them just by telling their story in English, so I created favela jiu-jitsu as a bilingual platform to share stories about social projects, athletes that come from them, and the impact they have on their community.”
After setting up the logistics for the project’s fundraising, Nico Ball returned to the United States: “I’ve been back in the U.S. for about 3 years now. I came back to finish my master’s degree in Educational Psychology. I’ve been working to develop sports-based educational programs for kids like Moleza that don’t pursue a traditional education. In my absence, I still work closely with Fabricio da Silva and Terere to manage the donations and fundraising for the project. I go back to Rio every year, but really, the most important thing is to make sure that the project is able to function even when Terere and I are not there.”
Find Nico on Instagram at @no_new_nico