For many, the Master’s division of jiu-jitsu is one of the most fascinating categories in our martial art’s competitive environment. One where a recent black belt may come across a legend of our sport at any given tournament, someone with multiple world titles and/or 15+ years worth of black belt experience. This habitat often produces its own set of heroes, late-bloomers who became celebrated competitors in BJJ despite their age, a group from which names such as Cosmo Dias, Brian Beauchamp and Joel Gingery spring to mind.
Today we focus on one black belt who easily fits this parameter, Sonya Plavcan, a very special kind of 50 year old with 4 International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) World Masters titles as a black belt, achievements she conquered after undergoing a grueling hip replacement surgery.
Sonya’s upbringing wasn’t unlike that of many others. Born in Kankakee, Illinois, Plavcan (then Barton) spent her childhood in Northern West Virginia where she competed in gymnastics, later moving to a dairy farm in southern Wisconsin.
Although not competition minded, Sonya did enjoy practicing a variety of sports prior to jiu-jitsu, from whitewater kayaking and mountain biking to bodybuilding. After college, Sonya started working as a chemical engineer while teaching fitness classes on the side, during the height of the cardio-kickboxing era. The trend of combining striking with aerobics let Plavcan to martial arts: “The gym where I was teaching at asked me to teach a cardio kickboxing class. I decided to start taking traditional muay Thai classes at a martial arts academy because I wanted to make sure anything I taught was true to the art and also safe.” Plavcan told BJJ Heroes. This interaction would quickly lead her to BJJ: “There was a class going on in the other room of the MT academy. I had no idea what it was, It just looked to me like a bunch of guys wrestling around on the ground wearing some sort of karate uniform! It was 1999, and BJJ was not really well known in the Midwest. One day my Muay Thai coach asked me if I had ever thought of trying jiu-jitsu because he thought I would be good at it. So I did. That decision changed my life.”
It was through jiu-jitsu that Sonya met her husband, Mark Plavcan, who was also her first BJJ coach. Mark has been a tremendous influence in Sonya’s progression in the sport, being together from her very first tournament back in 2000, during the early stages of submission grappling in the United States. “Times were very different” Sonya references, “the first tournament I did was (…) far from professional. There weren’t a lot of women in the sport. I remember competing at tournaments where the women were put in the men’s divisions because there weren’t any other female competitors close to their size.”
A competitor throughout her jiu-jitsu career, Sonya had the input not only of her husband Mark but also Jorge Gurgel and Romero Cavalcanti (Jacaré) of Alliance – a team the Plavcan’s joined in 2009.
Well in her 40s, Sonya was grappling against athletes 20 years younger and of higher rank, an example of this was her performance at the IBJJF Pans in 2011: “There were no Master divisions for the women, and the brown and black belts still competed in the same category. So at 43 years of age, I competed in the adult purple belt division. Mackenzie Dern had just turned 18 and took gold in our division that year.” said Plavcan. Finally, the following year, the federation opened a Master 1 female division, where Sonya placed 3rd in spite of having undergone surgery to her hip just months prior to the tournament.
“There was no specific event that started the whole problem with my hip.” Sonya said, in reference to her health struggles, “I just remember having discomfort that eventually, over a couple of years, got worse to the point of being in constant pain. It went undiagnosed for several years and the pain continued to get worse“. After many trips to the doctor Plavcan finally discovered what caused her joint aches through an MRI: a tear in the labrum due to congenital hip dysplasia. “The surgeon told me I had done all of the right things, and the fact that I had been so active and had good muscle mass to support the joint had kept me from needing hip surgery in my 20’s.”
Her first surgery, on September 2011 ended up not having the desired effect, cortisone shots followed, a decision Sonya took being fully aware of the dangers that came with such a move, “Cortisone can soften the cartilage and cause faster wearing, but my pain was that bad” she reasoned. The cortisone improved Plavcan’s well being dramatically for a couple months and helped Sonya get fit enough to compete at the IBJJF Pans on March 2012 “with a tolerable level of pain“. Unfortunately, after the tournament, the pain worsened and X-ray confirmed there was no cartilage left on the joint. This ultimately meant hip replacement surgery. “When I asked about BJJ [after diagnose], the doctor told me competition was out of the question after hip replacement. The risk of dislocation was too high (…) I sat there crying, I told him I still wanted to be able to train hard and compete. His response was ‘you can’t be an athlete forever’“.
Not one to quit easily, Sonya carried out her own research, and after a few months of reading into the subject, Sonya found the answer to her prayers: “On August 2012 I went to Chennai, India and had hip replacement surgery. My surgeon, Dr. Vijay Bose, is one of the top hip surgeons in the world. The technology being used in Europe and Asia was better than what we had here in the United States and Dr. Bose promised me a new hip with no restrictions, including competition.” And he was correct, “not only did I recover, but have won all of my major titles post-hip replacement surgery. It was three months post-surgery before I was allowed to start doing technique again. I did a lot of PT and strength training during that time and was still on the mat everyday teaching. It took probably a full year before I felt 100%.”
Since returning to the tournament scene, Mrs Plavcan received her black belt from the legendary Romero Cavalcanti (2016) and has had some very noticeable wins in the IBJJF circuit, such as World Master Champion (2016 weight + absolute, 2017 and 2018 Master 4), Pans Champion (2017 Master 1, 2018 Master 4) and a few Opens. “The BJJ mindset has taught me there is always a solution to keep you moving forward“, Sonya referenced of her achievements.
With an incredible story as a competitor, Sonya is also a coach at the Twisted Fitness gym, an academy she co-owns with her husband Mark since 2003, after leaving her career in Chemical Engineering to focus on BJJ. TF is the largest and longest-running BJJ academy in Madison, and we highly recommend a visit.
Your journey reads remarkably similar to mine. I am facing hip replacement surgery in June at 52 years of age. I am an ex-gymnast and MT, BJJ student who has been unable to roll in quite awhile due to the right hip/groin pain. Like you, I have congenital hip dysplasia, 4 labrum tears and am now bone on bone. I am scheduled for the anterior approach right total hip arthroplasty on june 25, 2019. What procedure, SPECIFICALLY, did your doctor perform? Any variation on the anterior approach? What was your approach to PT post op??
I hope this reaches you, as my life without BJJ is, well, a life without BJJ….you get it.
Thank You for your response,
Amy Van Hagen
I am just now seeing this message Amy! How is your recovery coming along? Mine was a posteriolateral approach, done in India with a Delta Motion ceramic on ceramic device, and preservation of the joint capsule to help prevent future hip dislocations. Would love to hear about your recovery!
I am a purple belt and am 46. I am having a hip replacement in Jan of 2020. Your story inspired me as I had expected that my jujitsu journey was over. The orthopedic surgeon is doing an anterior approach. Was there a progression for you getting back on the mats and back competing. I don’t compete much anymore and would love to compete again. Thank you in advance for your response.
Mine was a posteriolateral approach. I was cleared to do whatever I wanted at 3 months post surgery. Prior to that, my PT included a lot of isometrics, and band work to get the muscles all firing again. At 3 months I returned to more strength training with weights, and slowly moved into jiu- jitsu drills and eventually technique. It takes awhile to get the movement confidence back, especially with things like directional changing and shifting weight to the surgery leg. From there light rolling, and eventually full on training. At some point you will forget you even have a hip replacement. 🙂
How is the recovery coming?
Im a mid level blue belt and having my hip replaced in March, I plan on being on the mat in September. Ive got a plan of a very slow re-entry. Id really prefer to continue my jits journey. I may have to learn jits with a bad hip!
Best of luck to you Alan. I had my surgery in India for the technology offered there, and the preservation of the joint capsule to help prevent future hip dislocations. It was a relief to be out of the pain I was in. When is your surgery scheduled?
Sonya, thank you so much for talking about this and sharing the technique you had done!!
I’m in the process of researching this in Northern VA and am definitely using this information in choosing a Dr and clinic.
I don’t know if I’m courageous enough to go to India and get this done, BUT, I think I’m going to try and contact Dr Bose’s office and see if there’s someone in the states they recommend.
Thank you so much!!!
Hiiiii Sonya, I was reading your story and you are truly an inspiration. I read all your replies to the above comments. I noticed you had the posteriolateral approach. I just had the anterior procedure at HSS in NYC. I have taken BJJ years ago and systema. And reading your story has given me hope that perhaps I can take BJJ again. How long were you able to walk with a cane and not feel pain or put full weight on it? I know this is my third week post op, and I feel like my walking has become smoother with the cane but I still can’t put full weight on it, I guess I have to be patient. So I’m assuming since you can do BJJ you can do anything else, like yoga,sitting Indian style? There are no lifetime precautions?? And as far as your past Muay Thai can you still practice and do a round house kick to a banana bag and not dislocate your joint? I hear more and more people are getting the anterior because of less muscle violation and quicker recovery and less chance of dislocation and that is why I chose the anterior. I work as a police officer and I figure all those years carrying that weight has contributed to my cartilage loss,bone to bone. And I might just retire this year lol.
And it’s interesting reading that you were taking cortisone shots which you suspect softened your cartilage and then bone to bone, I heard of this. And what’s interesting is that I was taking prednisone in 2020 for like a year for a lung inflammation/ground glass density yet i never smoked in my life, so not sure how I got this lol and then as soon as the doctor reduced the medication, I started to feel a severe pain in my right hip on Nov 2020, the pulmonologist said the prednisone was masking the pain, which I think is BS, I think it caused my cartilage to diminish or act as a catalyst, it’s too much of a coincidence. They say prednisone can cause necrosis of the bone but thank god that has not happened with me, but the doctor said prednisone doesn’t affect the cartilage but yet cortisone is a corticosteroids the same family as prednisone, so yes I think it affected my cartilage, which x ray and MRI confirmed,labrum tear,bone to bone, severe arthrosis osteoarthritis ugh. So your story has resonated with me. But my lung inflammation has been cured and was able to have hip surgery. Sorry if this message is long,lol but maybe this has happened to other people so feel free to reply whomever so I can gain feedback/knowledge. But thank you for sharing Sonya.
I hope I can get back to just walking normally and perhaps BJJ within a year but not sure despite this lingering pandemic. But my surgeon has not recommended any PT for now probably in six weeks, which I agree, I don’t know how the heck people can do PT in their first to second week after surgery,lol I’m lucky to just be walking for now with a cane, I think PT would impede the soft tissue healing process according to what my surgeon said, and I agree with him ,but from what I read PT is essential within two to three months after surgery? Well since you were able to compete again that alone tells me that within a few months I might be able to regain my flexibility and perhaps take martial arts again and BJJ, But everyone heals differently. But BJJ encompasses so many locks, resistance and stress on the hips, I’m amazed, is there any one else that has had hip replacement surgery and has attained what you have? Or at least can still practice/roll? I know everyone is different. K god bless you thank you Sonya for being an inspiration to others.
Thanks you for sharing Sonya. Your story is inspiring. My total hop replacement surgery is in 6 days…Monday (12/14/20) and I’m terrified. Not because of the procedure, (for I’ve had several) but because of missing jiu-jitsu. I’m a 48 year old 2 stripe BB, who came up, and got promoted the past few years with 5 studs 20 years younger than me. I work my ass off to keep up, and do a pretty good job desguising my hip limitation, but if I take a year off the mat, I’m toast…..I feel like I will truly become that old guy who can no longer keep up. I know I’m worried for all the wrong reasons…but uts my truth.
Hi All- Thank you so much for sharing your stories!! I am 42 BB- and suffer from hip dysplasia as well. New hip going in next Friday and I am so excited, but also nervous about not being able to train….
Marc, how has your recovery been? Are you back to training?
Sonya- Thank you for sharing and Thank you for the replies.
I’m receiving a dual mobility joint and getting it from a great ortho at Cedars Sinai here in Los Angeles- he says I can train BJJ but just be smart. I’m just curious about timeline and what that entails.
Sonya- I saw your timeline on the above response, just curious what others have seen and felt.
Thank you all so much! Looking forward to joining team bionic very soon.
I am 47 years old. Just had a total hip replacement- anterior 12/3/2021. I suffered from AVN. Very painful last 2-1/2 years. PAIN FREE now and very clear mind set if you know if wee with that much pain for that long had.
My son has been training in jujitsu for 6 years now and I am very proud of his accomplishments. He is too. He will be 17 this summer and currently received his blue belt.
I feel he will be wanting to not pursue his jujitsu avenue due to maybe his age and being burnt out.
Well, here comes dad to the rescue. Lol.
My question is, can I start my path in Jujitsu after this kind of surgery? I want to do this not only for my rehab, but to rekindle his flame and continue. This will make his professor so happy.
I am in ok shape for a dad bod! lol
I’m so grateful to have found this article. I’m 38 and about to get an anterior hip replacement, I’ve been crying like a child for weeks thinking I’ll never get back on the mats, and that I’ve accomplished so little and it’s being cut short. Woe is me blah blah. Anyways, this story is the faith and inspiration I needed today, thank you. And thank you Sonya for blazing a trail for women in BJJ. I started bjj in 2013 and we were still so few in number at tournaments in Canada that we’d be collapsed into one big bracket amongst ourselves or put into our weight class with the guys. It’s come a long way since then, and and even further since you first hit the tournament scene. I’m always immensely grateful for the women like yourself who forged those first routes in for those of us that came later. Thank you so much.