The other night I was talking to a new jiu jitsu colleague, someone I had met recently as a result of visiting his academy and being warmly welcomed there. After a fun few rounds, we sat and chatted, as grapplers often do, discussing technique and what we had been trying to execute on each other during our training. Then, gradually, we drifted into broader topics.
Impressive, Notable, and Awesome People
We marveled at how many amazing people we had met through BJJ, people we wouldn’t have met if we hadn’t taken up the pajama fighting. Some of them, of course, are impressive to us because they are good at what we strive to be good at. Others are notable just for being awesome people who themselves may or may not train but who have touched our lives in some way. And still others are both: people who impress us with their grappling skill but whose other positive attributes we have also had the opportunity to observe.
I started to think more about people I’ve met through jiu-jitsu and how they have affected me. Of course, over the years I have encountered many people who have become longstanding friends, teachers, confidantes, and business partners, and I am grateful for all of them – and I hope they know it.
Little Interactions With a Massive Impact
I’ve also met people who were perhaps in my life for a short time but left an indelible impression. One particularly memorable time I experienced this was when I ran the Chicago marathon in October 1996.
My running pace is not what you’d call fast – just ask my friend and fellow Breaking Muscle contributor Tori Garten, a former collegiate track and cross country athlete. Once, in recent years when we were traveling together and had to sprint to make our connecting flight, her sprint was, shall we say, far sprintier than mine. She kindly had the airline staff hold the plane for me until I trundled to the gate.
“[O]ver the years I have encountered many people who have become longstanding friends, teachers, confidantes, and business partners, and I am grateful for all of them – and I hope they know it.”
So, on the day of the marathon, I had been steadily but slowly moving along for maybe three hours, and I still had a ways to go. I passed into yet another Chicago neighborhood that featured the telltale signs of a recent stampede – discarded cups, bar wrappers, and orange peels; dwindling crowds; and the like. There were still people cheering, but they were fewer and farther between, and given that there were probably many far faster people who had already finished the marathon or were headed to the finish line at that point, the action was definitely not where I was.
I was still gamely chugging along, though, when I started to hear a banging noise a little bit ahead of me. I looked in the direction of the sound and saw a little old lady standing on the side of the race route, wrapped in winter clothing from head to toe, though it must have been in the fifties by that time of the morning. She was holding a pot and smacking it with a wooden spoon, nodding and smiling from ear to ear. My guess is that she had been out there since the pre-dawn start of the marathon – hence the winter clothing – and that she’d be there until the bitter end.
I didn’t talk to this woman and have no idea where she is now, or even any idea how I would begin to go about finding her if I were so inclined. But now, almost twenty years later, I still remember her, particularly the energizing impact she had on my tired, plodding self as I tried to test my own limits. She never knew how much her pot banging meant, but I’m grateful I got to cross paths with her, even if just during exact moment when I needed her.
What follows is my contemplation of five people I would never have met, and who would never have enhanced my life, if I hadn’t walked into my first intimidating, completely alien-seeming beginner jiu jitsu class.
I vividly remember the first day I met Joe. He had a shaved head, numerous tattoos, and piercings in his earlobes, lip, and other body parts that I would later, outside of class, see adorned with jewelry. (And some I wouldn’t see but would rather take his word for.) I was still a bit new to the BJJ scene at that time, so when I looked at him, I expected someone hard, mean, and badass. Someone I would have zero in common with, because I was so woefully square (the kind of person who says things like “woefully square”).
“I was still a bit new to the BJJ scene at that time, so when I looked at him, I expected someone hard, mean, and badass Someone I would have zero in common with, because I was so woefully square.”
Turns out that one out of three ain’t bad. Joe is badass, but he is also extremely kind and empathetic, and for a while, until our paths drifted from each other, he was one of my favorite training partners, and I was one of his, or so he said. He took me seriously as a grappler, he kept me on my toes, and although our life experiences had differed, and although we might have looked different on the surface, we discovered fundamental commonalities that enabled us to create a temporary, but real, connection.
Magda was the mother of one of the students in the kids’ class at an academy I trained at for a while. Magda would drive her son to class and stay to chat with the other parents, instructors, and students waiting for the adult classes, and as I got to know her, I discovered that the strength of her love for her kid was rivaled only by the creativity with which she swore.
She swore about the line at the supermarket. She swore about the other parents at the bake sales. She swore about the cost of back-to-school clothes. And one time she told me in great, blue detail what she would do to anyone who tried to hurt her kid. I pitied anyone foolish enough. And always admired how completely herself Magda was, how utterly unconcerned about what other people thought of her choices. She had an ironclad value system, one that overlapped significantly with mine, for what it’s worth, and she lived up to it on a daily basis. And if you didn’t like it, you could deal with a bunch of f-words.
I met Keely when I was a student of her father, an Olympic-caliber wrestler. She was about four years old at the time, and she came to the academy and hung out with her mom while her dad was teaching. It quickly became apparent that in addition to being a sunny, happy kid, she was also dangerously smart, and that as she got older things were just going to get more and more interesting when she was around.
“Adult” conversations between parents or people waiting for the next class turned out not to be as cryptic to kids as the adults would probably have hoped, as evidenced by the fact that after listening quietly, Keely would often ask a pointed question or make a comment to her mother that demonstrated she had not missed a trick.
One day Keely drew a picture for me on a Post-it note that included a random-seeming string of letters. But I didn’t ask her what it meant because I assumed she was writing in a code scientists smarter than I would someday crack. From the day I met her, Keely called me Celery. And when Keely pulls on your shirt tail and says, “Celery, Celery,” you immediately say, “Yes, Keely, what can I do for you?”
This is a twofer. During the late 2000s and early 2010s, I competed pretty regularly, working on improving my competition skill as I was working on improving my jiu jitsu skill. As a result, I came into contact with many staff members at many tournaments: referees, table workers, even medal-hander-outers.
Two people in particular, one man and one woman, stand out in my memory. They were mat coordinators for International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) tournaments, which means they managed brackets, wrangled the competitors in those brackets through weigh-ins and gi checks, and escorted us to our competition mats. I encountered each of these two mat coordinators multiple times over the years, and they were always professional, efficient, and encouraging.
Early on, when I was so scared about competing that I could barely breathe and walk at the same time, they seemed to sense that, and they made sure to smile and look me in the eye. In later years, when I had gotten more comfortable with the discomfort of competing and could be more interpersonal with it, we actually had brief conversations in the bullpen. I know I learned their names once or twice, but I also know this happened when I was less experienced and could barely remember my own name, so those are lost to me unless/until I have the opportunity to cross paths with them again. But I am not likely ever to forget their positivity and soothing energy.
Whom have you met through BJJ, practitioner or otherwise, who has enhanced your life, even if just momentarily, and whom you would likely not have met if not for your training habit? Post your “five people you met in BJJ” to comments.
Photos courtesy of David Brown Photography.