OROSI – A local couple wants to bring more structure to the lives of Cutler-Orosi youth and give back to the broader community through the practice of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Gracie Lara and her husband Felix Lara own a branch of Elite Team, a jiu-jitsu academy located throughout the Central Valley, where they offer classes for children, teenagers and adults. Their hope is that through Elite Team Orosi, anyone in the area can find fitness, discipline and community in a specialty they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
“Our mission is to bring these opportunities to the smaller community to help out the youth most of all and bring the jiu-jitsu culture to the smaller communities,” Felix said.
Both Felix and Gracie earned black belts in jiu-jitsu under the tutelage of Tom Knox, owner of Elite Team Visalia. The Laras opened Elite Team Orosi in February 2022 despite having the opportunity to open an Elite Team location in a larger city.
Gracie is originally from Chicago, and Felix grew up in Orosi. Gracie said that she always wanted to give back to the community she came from, but she doesn’t want to go back to the cold weather of Chicago, and contributing to her husband’s hometown is special for the both of them.
“To open up there in his hometown, it’s a big thing for him,” Gracie said. “He’s proof that you can make it in life even if you live in a small, poor community, and then you can also come back and give back.”
Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a martial art that focuses on weaponless fighting and ground fighting. It is particularly helpful for self-defense when an opponent is larger or stronger than you. The Laras found jiu-jitsu through their careers in law enforcement.
Felix has been an officer with California Highway Patrol (CHP) since he was 21 years old and is currently a detective with CHP’s Fresno gang unit. He said he came across the sport through a CHP training course where the only fighting discipline he performed poorly in was jiu-jitsu.
“I’m the type of person that wants to figure stuff out, so instead of getting discouraged because I wasn’t very good at the ground fighting aspect, I decided to take it upon myself and start to look for a local academy,” Felix said.
Gracie, a retired police officer who worked for the departments in Delano and Tulare, spent many years as a physical training instructor for the police academy. She and Felix also own Five-O-Fitness in Visalia, where she is a personal trainer.
“One thing that jiu-jitsu taught me was discipline and the will to never give up the fight, whether it’s on the mat or in life,” Gracie said. “That’s what I’d like to pass on to my personal training clients but also my jiu-jitsu students, especially women.”
Gracie said that while people they know doubted the success they would have in a smaller community, they are still going strong and their students — adults and youth — have brought home 22 medals from jiu-jitsu competitions in the last year.
Their driving force with Elite Team Orosi is to show people, especially local youth, how they can change their own lives and be healthier through jiu-jitsu.
“We are very focused on outreach to young kids and teenagers because a lot of our younger group come from broken homes … and so we try to teach them structure,” Felix said. “We try to teach them respect, how to present themselves, how to speak well and (are) pretty much being mentors to this younger generation that don’t have a positive role model within their home.”
Gracie said that the focus, discipline and strategy that goes into jiu-jitsu has helped keep some of their students out of trouble and driven them to better themselves. She said that some of their students have said the Laras saved them.
“That gets me emotional because I’ve been there myself … in that environment,” Gracie said. “I know what it’s like, and I know what it’s like to have that person tug on you and pull you back into the right direction and give you that mentorship and that guidance … (you) probably don’t have at home or at school.”
Felix said that training in jiu-jitsu really helps young people learn how to deal with challenges in life, and he thinks that his and his wife’s backgrounds also help them reach their students because they know exactly what it’s like to be in their shoes.
With jiu-jitsu, Felix said that there’s “always a counter to every technique, and just like in life, just because you’re faced with a large obstacle, there’s always a way around it.”
“A lot of times these kids feel overwhelmed with problems at home or at school and we try to relay to them that it’s manageable,” Felix said. “Just like in jiu-jitsu, you ride the wave and you get through it; you get accustomed to the stress and you deal with it.”
Gracie said that 18-year-old Jordan Alvarado is one of their students who they have seen tremendous growth in since he started training with Elite Team Orosi. Alvarado, who recently graduated from an Orosi high school, is now training to be a deputy with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO). He said that training in jiu-jitsu has helped him physically and mentally by gaining strength, discipline, confidence and social skills.
While Alvarado has received mentorship from the Laras, Gracie said that he has also started to become a mentor to other jiu-jitsu students. The 18-year-old was first introduced to the sport when Felix visited his high school.
“After my first month there I just didn’t want to leave,” Alvarado said. “It’s very fun, it gives me a lot of stuff to do in my free time. … (The Laras) helped me win a gold medal the last time I competed.”
To keep in line with the Laras’ overall mission and ensure anyone who wants to join Elite Team Orosi is capable of doing so, Felix sponsored a few students for a first-month membership to the academy; and Alavardo was one of the selected few who was given that opportunity.
“He (Felix) has such a huge heart when it comes to people in that community because that’s where he grew up and he knows what it’s like to grow up there and he understands the struggle,” Gracie said. “It’s not about us; it truly is about helping them.”
Jiu-jitsu is also a helpful discipline for law enforcement officers because many times untrained officers will use unnecessary force, Gracie said.
“We have seen a lot of officers not put enough time in with their health and fitness or even with their weaponless defense training like jiu-jitsu,” Gracie said. “It’s very rare that you’re going to use your gun on duty, or even your taser or baton or any weapon. It’s usually hands-on.”
By having experience with jiu-jitsu, Felix said an officer is able to control a person resisting arrest with their body weight instead of striking an individual.
“Utilizing jiu-jitsu is a lot safer for the officer and a lot safer for the resisting person,” he said.
Further, Gracie said she is adamant that jiu-jitsu is a great self-defense tool for women, who are often going to be smaller than an opponent if they are attacked. To support this mindset, she and a friend teach a free women-only jiu-jitsu class at Elite Team Visalia every other week.
The class schedules and sign-up information for Elite Team Orosi are available on their Instagram and Facebook pages at Elite Team Orosi and Five-O-Fitness. The Laras encourage anyone to join regardless of their age or experience.