Danielle Martin makes life look easy in her stunning modeling pictures, but those images do not tell the story of her tumultuous journey to becoming the Jiu-Jitsu black belt she is today.
In high school, Danielle was homeless and slept in a campground restroom.
Her mother made some bad choices selling methamphetamine and went away to prison and her father was not there for her.
But instead of becoming another statistic, Danielle fought her way through hardships and has shaped an inspiring life.
After high school, Danielle found herself in a whirlwind as a professional surfer, model and TV personality.
She grew up in Hawaii where she began surfing when she was seven years old. Her passion for surfing lead to sponsorships from O’Neill, Rip Curl and others.
Professional surfing led Danielle to modeling jobs with major national brands like Nordstrom, Nike and Reebok. Danielle was also featured in magazines like Sports Illustrated, Shape, Health & Fitness and Surfing.
After a chance encounter on the beach, Danielle was invited to host a television show that led to roles on shows like Dirty Jobs on Discovery, Planet X on the FOX Network and Pro-Truck TV on Speedvision.
In addition to her professional career, Danielle has won multiple championship Jiu-Jitsu medals at the National, Pan American and World tournaments while progressing through the belt ranks.
Today Danielle is a motivational speaker and founder of True Boundaries — a personal protection and self-empowerment company.
Danielle started when Jiu-Jitsu schools were hard to find and she had to drive two hours round trip to get to academy.
“I don’t really know why I was drawn to it, but it was probably because I grew up not feeling safe,” Danielle said. “I think I was subconsciously preparing myself for the worst.”
Danielle watched a few classes and became really excited when the instructor mentioned tournaments.
“I can win a world championship doing this?” Danielle asked him.
Danielle is fiercely competitive and sports have been a significant part of her life. She graduated high school with 12 varsity letters and as a senior she was the California state athlete of the year.
“I played a lot of sports because I was trying to fill a void,” Danielle said. “I had that fire in me. When you’re missing something, you don’t have your parents, you get angry and I put all that into sports.”
Surfing was the sport that launched Danielle’s modeling career. She received a call from Surfing Magazine when they decided to experiment with female surfers in place of professional swimsuit models.
Surfers that could model swimsuits were a rare commodity so after that centerfold, Danielle started getting calls from the big names in the modeling industry.
“I was traveling all over, surfing, modeling and making a lot of money, but in my heart I felt like I was capable of more.” Danielle said.
Everyone pushed her to take the modeling offers while they were hot, but she wanted to go to college.
“I needed something nobody could take away from me,” Danielle said. “I believed education was going to take me a lot further than modeling.”
Danielle’s success in high school sports led to numerous recruiting letters from top colleges, but she never followed up with them.
“When you grow up bouncing all around, you don’t feel worthy of all the places that were trying to recruit me,” Danielle said. “I threw all those letters away except one.”
By pure chance, she kept one of those letters. “The Bruin one was cute with a bear face stationary so I put it in a box,” Danielle said.
Several years later, after Danielle had long forgotten about that recruiting letter, she was sent to the UCLA campus to cover an athletic event for the sports TV show she was on.
“I didn’t want to step on that field,” Danielle said. “I just didn’t want it in my face.”
Danielle was jealous of the female students who got the opportunity to go to college that she did not have. She had accumulated years of disappointment from growing up without healthy parents.
“I remember when I got elected homecoming queen,” Danielle said. “I bowed out because I didn’t have my dad and I didn’t even have money to buy a dress.”
She reluctantly covered the TV show at UCLA which included participating with the female athletes. After the practice, she was asked to sign autographs and speak to the students.
“You girls are so lucky and you don’t even realize it. I would trade seats with you if I could. You have an opportunity to do your thing in front of the best coaches in the country and pay your way through college. I want to do what you do,” Danielle told the students.
Danielle held it together as she signed surfing posters for the girls, but she was upset.
“How come I didn’t get to do this?” Danielle wondered. “How come this skipped me?”
As Danielle was leaving, the assistant coach pulled Danielle aside.
“You just ran faster than all of these girls,” The coach told her. “This is going to sound crazy, but would you ever want to come to school here?”
Danielle just stood there in disbelief as she contemplated going to a school like UCLA.
“I got in the car and bawled the whole way home.” Danielle said. “I was overwhelmed with emotions.”
When Danielle got home she found the four year old UCLA recruiting letter and was shocked to see it was signed by the same coach.
After several hurdles, Danielle went to enroll at UCLA and learned that her father had been fraudulently claiming her on his income taxes which forced her to pay inflated out of state tuition fees.
“I was a kid. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing,” Danielle said. “My mom was in prison and I had nobody.”
Danielle was scared every quarter when tuition payments were due. If she took scholarship money from the school she could not continue receiving her surfing sponsorship income, so she hustled to find modeling work.
“There wasn’t a day on that campus that I wasn’t completely, utterly beyond grateful,” Danielle said. “School cost me about 150 grand and I paid for every dime.”
Danielle was forced to tell her story to her coach because she needed permission to skip practice for modeling assignments. It wasn’t until graduation day that Danielle discovered that her teammates also knew.
At graduation, Danielle’s teammates gave her a Tiffany bracelet that she still wears today.
The girls said they complained that Danielle missed practices until the coach shared about Danielle’s hardship.
“We admire you,” her teammates said. “You never said a word. You never complained once.”
While at UCLA, Danielle was introduced to Jiu-Jitsu, but after graduation she began training relentlessly.
I had this fire in me,” Danielle said. “I think Jiu-Jitsu gave me something to dive into.”
She trained twice a day and started competing seriously. Within about six months, she won the world championship as a white belt.
She competed in every tournament she could find from white to purple belt and collected a lot of hardware along the way.
Danielle got hooked, not only because of the physical challenge, but also the mental one.
“Jiu-Jitsu parallels life in a lot of ways,” Danielle said. “The further you get, the more wisdom you have and the more confidence you gain. When you have confidence, you realize what you do not know.”
Danielle explained that the more confidence you gain, the more open you become to learning from the white and blue belts who look up to you.
“Jiu-Jitsu is something that’s a level playing field,” Danielle said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you have or what car you pulled into the parking lot.”
Danielle was excelling in the sport until she contracted Lyme disease after the world championships as a purple belt.
“I was pretty much knocking at death’s door and didn’t even know it,” Danielle said.
Danielle did not know what was wrong because Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose. After many tests, she ended up alone in a hospital in Tijuana, Mexico.
“My immune system was functioning at less than one percent,” Danielle said. “The doctor showed me test results from another patient and said, ‘This person is not here anymore and your numbers are worse.’”
About a year earlier, her son flat-lined in front of her in the hospital. When that happened she prayed to God that he take her instead of her son.
Her son had heart surgery and is healthy today, so a year later Danielle was at peace when she contemplated her own death.
“Most people would have panicked, but I felt calm,” Danielle said. “Everything I asked for happened and I felt grateful.”
After fourteen months on an IV and hundreds of needle pricks later, her immune system slowly recovered, but the symptoms of Lyme disease never completely go away.
Danielle eased back into training and eventually entered her first competition after being sick.
“I just wanted to see if I could do it,” Danielle said. “My first tournament was at Worlds as a brown belt and I won.”
After recovering from a back surgery, Danielle earned the coveted Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt.
It takes many years of hard work and pain, so few forget the day they receive their black belt. For Danielle, that night was memorable for a different reason.
After the belt promotion ceremony, she went out to celebrate with friends. After a few drinks, she got into an argument with an ex-boyfriend who was also one of her instructors.
Soon the police responded and found Danielle with a black eye that was swollen shut and several other injuries. According to the police report, Danielle was punched repeatedly by the ex-boyfriend and dragged from a moving car.
“My past has never come back to hurt me,” Danielle said, “but at that moment it did.”
Danielle had only been in a couple of long term relationships and did not have the tools to cope with domestic violence.
“I was great at protecting everyone,” Danielle said. “But even with a black belt around my waist, I still wasn’t good at protecting myself.
Danielle said that raising herself with dysfunctional parents made her resilient, but she did not learn boundaries.
“I’m good at taking shit,” Danielle said, “but I never learned when enough is enough.”
As commonly happens, some of their mutual friends picked sides leaving Danielle heartbroken and jaded for a while.
“I finally found peace with it,” Danielle said. “It doesn’t define me. I am who I am and I don’t look back and make excuses.”
After everything she has been through, Danielle said she would happily take it ten times over again to be where she is today.
As Danielle has been putting her life back together she continues pushing forward.
After years away from Jiu-Jitsu tournaments, Danielle did this interview on the eve of her return to Jiu-Jitsu competition.
Not only was it her first fight as a black belt, but it was also a live televised super-fight with thousands of viewers.
After a solid performance, the judges awarded the victory to her opponent, but for Danielle, just showing up was the victory.
Today Danielle’s professional focus is on her company True Boundaries where she is able teach by example that people can recover from almost anything.
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This interview is part of the book, “Motivation: Stories of Life and Success From Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belts.” Click HERE to get it at Amazon.
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