UPDATE (4/6/20, 5:19 PM ET): Editor’s Note: Ricardo De la Riva has since commented on the allegations levied by do Val on his official Instagram account. His post is included in its entirety at the conclusion of this article.
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Four-time International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) World champion Claudia do Val accused her former professor and grappling icon Ricardo De la Riva of sexual abuse on Friday.
Speaking to host Paola Diana on Friday’s episode of the “Unleashed: The Game Changers” podcast, do Val alleged that De la Riva, 55, sexually abused her in 2015, violating what she believed to be a father-daughter-like relationship between the two.
De la Riva, who has achieved the extraordinary rank of red belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, earned his black belt from the late Carlson Gracie, the eldest son of Carlos and nephew of Hélio, the founder of Brazilian jiu jitsu. De la Riva is considered to be one of the most influential and innovative grapplers of all time, creating the now-famous ‘De la Riva’ guard, an important adaptation to the practice.
“I was really messed up,” do Val said of the period prior to which the alleged abuse took place. Do Val explained in the interview how close hers and De la Riva’s relationship had been, and that she had experienced several traumatic life events preceding the sexual assault, including an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship, going public with her struggles with the eating disorder bulimia, and the serious illness of her longtime pet cat.
“I used to see [De la Riva] as a dad, and I used to hug him. I loved him as a dad, I was like, ‘Oh my god, he’s such an amazing person.’ I saw him as this god-like figure, also like a dad, and also like a friend,” said do Val. “I remember when I got my brown belt [from De la Riva] in 2014, he actually said, ‘There’s this person, she’s like a daughter to me’ [before awarding me the promotion, so I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not crazy, I’m actually [like] his daughter.'”
Do Val continued, “I always had this image of how amazing he is. He was my dad; he was amazing; he was my friend… I had him so high up on a pedastal. I would remember, someone would come up to me [and ask,] ‘Would you die for him?’ Yes. Right away. I would die. If somebody pointed a gun at me: ‘Either you die or he dies,’ I’ll die.”
On the verge of tears, do Val was comforted by Diana. She began to share the details of her life at the time of the alleged assault.
“2014 was a very hard year for me,” she said. “Remember the boyfriend? That was 2014. So, he was abusive; he was very, very abusive… that lasted four months, because he was crazy… I escaped him sometime around June, I think.”
Do Val described herself as “a mess inside” following the relationship’s end and her struggle with bulimia.
“I got really depressed,” said do Val, “‘How weak am I?'” she asked herself.
“I was really messed up, and my professor [De la Riva] knew about [all of] that,” do Val continued.
“So, what happened was, we were talking on the WhatsApp one day… and then one of these days, he sent me a message saying, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to your home so you can give me a massage,'” do Val recounted.
“I was very naive towards him, and you can I was stupid because I was 25 or 26 at the time. I was very naive because it never crossed my mind that ‘I was a woman and he was a man,’ because he is [like] my dad, so I was very naive.
“That was the first time that I was- wow, that’s, that’s,” do Val trailed off, as Diana offered, “That’s strange, yeah.”
“I panicked a little bit,” continued do Val, “but I was trying to convince myself that it was okay. I’m like, ‘Well, he’s my dad. It’s normal if your dad goes to your house and asks for a massage. It’s normal.’ But then I was like, ‘I hope he’s just kidding.’ I just kept on with my life, and then he sent a message, ‘Oh, I’m going there. I’m going to be there soon.'”
“I got a little upset,” said do Val, “but then I was like, ‘Well, it’s fine, it’s: My dad is coming over for a massage and it’s fine.’ I kept telling myself that.”
“Finally, he got to my home. He went over; he asked for a massage. My heart was, like, almost leaving my body, but I was like, ‘It’s going to be over soon. I hope he leaves.’ Then, the massage was over, and then he was like, ‘Okay, it’s my turn now,'” alleged do Val.
“And he never gave you a massage in his life before?” asked Diana.
“No,” responded do Val. “At that point on, I didn’t know what to do with myself.” Emotionally, do Val continued, “There was something dying inside of me. I didn’t know what to do.
“He started touching me,” do Val started, before beginning to cry.
“That’s horrible – he took advantage of you,” said Diana, reaching out to comfort do Val by touching her arm.
“I didn’t say ‘No,'” wept do Val. “I didn’t stop him, because… I was dying inside. I hate him so much, because even though I didn’t say ‘No’ with my voice, I’m sure was my body language was saying ‘No,’ because I was a statue. I was petrified, and he kept going. He kept going the whole way.
“I blamed myself so much for this because I didn’t say ‘No,’ with my voice,” finished do Val.
“So, he abused you?” asked Diana.
“I don’t know if I can call it ‘abuse’ because I wasn’t able to say ‘No,’ but my body – I was petrified inside. I was dying inside; I didn’t know what to think: ‘Did he ever like me as a student?’ He’s a married man. ‘Did he ever like me as his daughter?'”
Do Val would go on to claim that after the incident, De la Riva charged her gym fees for the first time.
“Like I said, he charged me for training after. In the beginning, I wasn’t charged for training because my uncle was one of the owners of the gym. In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Is that the prize? I have to pay for training?’
“I was dying inside. I was so upset he kept going, like he was enjoying himself. I was just hoping I would die, and then it was over. I didn’t know what to do with my life. It was just like my life was over; I didn’t know what to do. I was like, ‘Can I leave the gym?’
“My house was right in front of the gym – it was like, if I leave the gym, they’re going to ask why I did. What do I say? Everyone’s going to say it’s my fault because I didn’t voice it; I didn’t tell him to stop. Is it my fault? I couldn’t tell anybody. It took my two years to tell the first person [about it] because I kept thinking in my heart that it was my fault.”
Do Val went on to describe a conversation she purportedly had with De la Riva afterward, on the day of the alleged abuse.
“That was over, and then that same day, he sent me a message because I went to training that day and I was just sitting there like, ‘What do I do with my life now?’ He sent me a message saying, ‘I thought you looked weird,’ and then I explained, ‘You’re like a father to me – that’s not something I ever thought would happen,’ especially because it happened out of nowhere. He never voiced any desire towards me, and then out of nowhere…
“I think that’s something you should have told me because if you’re there touching me, I don’t think that’s asking for permission. You should have told me before because you know how I admire you, how I hold you on such a high pedestal, so you should have discussed this with me before,” said do Val of what she thought.
Do Val said De la Riva invited her to talk about the incident thereafter. According to do Val, De la Riva believed it was consensual because she was “‘always so warm to me,'” to which do Val responded her warmth was because of her perception of him as a father figure.
Do Val alleges that De la Riva then sent a message “wanting to continue with it.”
“I was like, ‘No, no, no way,'” said do Val, “And he was also twice my age and I [said], ‘No, that’s not something that I want.'”
Do Val said she was “hoping to forget that that ever happened,” but De la Riva “tried to pursue it.”
“He tried to come over to my house more time, and he sometimes during training, he would say stuff only I would understand about what happened, and I would get so mad,” said do Val, “because he knew how much I didn’t want that. He would talk about it like it was the most amazing thing for me, and it wasn’t.”
“Not only did you do it, you destroyed a part of me, and now you’re mentioning it and talking about it like it’s something cool, and that would just make me so angry,” do Val explained.
After two years, do Val says the comments stopped. She believes De la Riva was “offended and angry at me” because she did not go along with his efforts.
Do Val says De la Riva then did “everything he could to push me out of the academy,” which he allegedly attempted through several measures, including “no support, not letting me wearing my gi,” and charging gym fees to “force me to leave the gym, which is something that I should have done way earlier.”
Do Val said fears of being blamed for the alleged incident prevented her from initially leaving the gym. She has since moved to the Soul Fighters Association gym.
UPDATE (4/6/20, 5:19 PM ET): Editor’s Note: Ricardo De la Riva has since commented on the allegations levied by do Val on his official Instagram account. His post is included in its entirety below:
“For the past 40 years, I have started a great history on the mats that with a lot of team work, strength, determination, respect, character and passion for Jiu Jitsu, has gotten us united as a real family,” wrote De la Riva.
“There are more than 80 De La Riva schools around the world and approximately 3 thousand students that are guided by me and by the other coaches. In all those years, my reputation was built grounded by ethics, respect and commitment to all my students. As everybody knows, this path was paved with a lot of dedication and honor. I always had an ethical conduct, and has been respected by my family, friends and all my students.
“It was with perplexity and consternation that I heard Claudia do Val´s (an athlete of De La Riva team for about 10 years), allegations last Saturday. Me and my family were surprised by an irresponsible and false accusation. For a while now, her statements do not live up to the partnership spirit that we are all so proud of, and reached its peaks in the last days, revealing ingratitude to all the work, support and coaching that were given in favor of her professional evaluation,” he wrote.
“In the past 5 years, Claudia has reached her professional peak, winning a lot of championships, conducting seminars, gaining great notoriety in Jiu Jitsu world, which reflects, for sure, the great team and professional work that was done by the De La Riva family.
“It is important to say that in times of social media, as you all well know, any reckless statement can grow to epic proportions, having the power to irreversibly harm a reputation, since the mere allegation is enough to convict in the court of public opinion. [continue in comments],” he said.
“I have always been a reserved person centered on my family. Because of that and, above all, in respect of my beloved wife that has been so supportive in this time, I am already in touch with my lawyers for them to undertake every action to safeguard my image and reputation, in order to clarify those unfounded accusations.
“Despite of all that, as a coach, I keep wishing that Claudia finds her path and have great achievements in her personal and professional life. Thank you all for the support,” he concluded.
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.