She may be small in stature but underestimate Nicky Karaitiana at your peril.

The Year 9 Rotorua Girls' High School student won a gold medal in the under-61kg division at the New Zealand Open Brazilian Jiu Jitsu National Championships in Auckland last week.

It is her fourth national title, including two from the Māori nationals.

Nicky says her mum suggested she give Jiu Jitsu a go two years ago as an outlet for the grief she was experiencing when her koro (grandfather) died. She has since developed a love for the sport, not to mention some serious talent.

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"We went to one of the trainings and I was watching, I found a passion for it just from watching. I enjoy the discipline, the family feeling and the fitness. It has definitely helped [with the grief]."

She says she felt confident going into the final at the nationals.

"I had all my Gracie Gym family there supporting me and whenever I have them supporting me I always have my adrenaline going and I feel confident.

"I felt pretty blessed [to win], it was a cool feeling."

Despite all her success, Nicky says the highlight of her Jiu Jitsu career so far is the bronze medal she won at an in-house event last year.

"Because that's the one I learned the most from. I learned how to lose, how to use your past to move forward. You have to learn how to win but also learn how to lose."

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a martial art and combat sport which focuses on grappling with an emphasis on ground fighting.

It is based on the concept that a smaller, weaker person can successfully defend themselves against a bigger, stronger, heavier opponent.

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This is done by using technique, leverage, and most notably, taking the fight to the ground, and then applying joint locks and choke holds to defeat the opponent.

"You can win through points or from the other person tapping out," Nicky says.

"Usually I get advice from my professors (coaches) and if I know the person I just think of what I can do, their weaknesses. Most of the time I trust my faith and just try to get in a dominant position.

She trains three times a week and says there are times when it is harder to go because "life gets in the way" but she confides in her parents or coaches who always help her out.

During the next couple of years, Nicky has her eyes set on some major overseas events.

"We're planning to go to Melbourne later this year to compete in the [Pan Pacific Jiu Jitsu Championship]. Next year, we're planning to go to California for some international fights.

"It will definitely [be a step up]. Since I train with adults I'll just have to keep putting in heaps of hard work and pushing myself, try to find my weaknesses and work on them. At the moment that's sweeps and attacks like arm bars and chokes, just different ways to tap them out."

She says people are often surprised when she tells them she competes in a combat sport.

"They're usually like 'but you don't look scary'. I just have to remember to stay grounded and stay humble. From the sport they teach you a lot of things and interpret it into real life situations.

"One example is you're not allowed to give your back or they'll choke you. My professor says never give your back in life because that's when people can stab you in the back."