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For the love of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Getting my blue belt from Pat Cooligan at the Ottawa Academy of Martial Arts, December 2014

Getting my blue belt from Pat Cooligan at the Ottawa Academy of Martial Arts, December 2014

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu changed my life. It made me more dedicated to my health and well-being. It set out solid goals for which to reach. It provided a new level camaraderie and friendship that I’d never before experienced in sports and recreation. Most importantly, it gave me a whole new physical and mental challenge that’s always a lot of fun.

BJJ is a martial art with roots in Japan that was modified and refined in Brazil in the 20th Century. Simply put, the sport combines grappling, wrestling, and Judo in complex sequences of ground fighting. Its history is very interesting, and its evolution is impressive. Today, it is a crucial element of modern mixed martial arts.

I got my start in BJJ in late 2009 when I lived in Winnipeg. Two of my friends, Wab Kinew and Gabriel Daniels, had picked it up a year or so prior, and suggested I try it. I went for a couple of trial classes at Rodrigo Munduruca’s school and was hooked right away. It was one of the hardest workouts I had ever done. Learning the techniques was fun, but it wasn’t easy. “Rolling”, as it’s called, is a constant struggle for dominant positions and submissions. Failure to dominate results in being physically crushed, or having your limbs painfully twisted. After those initial classes, I was exhausted and sore, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I signed up by the end of the week.

It became my primary physical activity. I still ran and lifted weights at the local YMCA, but BJJ took over. I was going at least three times a week, when my work schedule permitted. My strength and endurance increased. My mental focus sharpened. While BJJ is an intensely physical sport, it’s also very cerebral. Knowledge of technique and strategy is a matter of tapping out or making an opponent tap. It’s imperative to always be thinking many steps ahead.

While I fell in love with the sport, my time in Winnipeg drew to a close. I decided it was time to move closer to home, so I went to Toronto just a few months after starting BJJ. I was in transition; not really sure where I was going to end up for good. So I was on hiatus from my newfound passion. It was a tough break, but once I settled in Ottawa for good, I signed up at the Ottawa Academy of Martial Arts in late 2010. I found the same positive, fun, and challenging environment there, and couldn’t have been happier to resume rolling.

Unfortunately, I suffered a major back injury unrelated to BJJ that kept me off the mats for many months. Other physical setbacks kept my training sporadic for most of my first year in Ottawa. But I recovered fully and was able to get back into it on a regular basis, and I haven’t had any injuries since. Despite the intense nature of the sport, I’ve never been hurt because of it, other than countless bruises and a few twisted ankles and fingers. Because of the tight spirit of team training, everyone looks out for each other. We’re all friends, even in the heat of battle.

On the mats, I’ve met people of all social, cultural, and professional backgrounds. I’ve rolled with cops, electricians, students, lawyers, government workers, teachers, ironworkers, and the list goes on. It transcends cultures. I’ve never been involved in a recreational activity that’s so culturally diverse. Something I have been delighted to notice is the growing number of Indigenous people putting on the gi and getting on the mat. There are many positive and inspiring stories, like this one about a young mom in Saskatchewan who’s a top-ranked fighter.

I believe that’s because of the strong sense of community BJJ promotes. I also believe it’s because the sport is so accessible and beneficial, and it speaks to the spiritual and physical goal of healthy living that’s deeply ingrained in many Indigenous cultures. Some may even argue it speaks to the role of the protector that’s a crucial part of those cultures as well. Either way, I highly recommend it to everyone.

Late last year I received my blue belt from Professor Pat Cooligan at OAMA. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. BJJ has been a long journey for me, and it feels like I’ve taken a major step. To accomplish something that’s so physically and mentally difficult is hugely rewarding. I plan to continue on this path for as long as I can. Hopefully I’ll meet you on the mats.

A Perpetual Resolve

They gasp and wheeze through just a few minutes on the elliptical. Sweat drips from their brows and soaks their t-shirts as their trembling fingers reach for the “stop” button on the treadmill. They can only muster one or two incline presses before calling it a day. It’s January so that means all kinds of gyms and fitness centres are overflowing with the overweight and the unhealthy. Countless people who have resolved to finally get back into the shape they were in their “prime”. Well I think new year’s resolutions are bullshit. We should always be trying to institute positive influences in our lives, whether physical, emotional, professional and so on. Physical fitness means a lot to me (although I could be in way better shape) and I think it’s crucial to stay active, mix it up, and most importantly, have fun.

Personal Background

Both of my parents were pretty dedicated athletes when they met in high school. In fact, my dad was the 1974 Ontario high school wrestling champion and competed for many years on a national level. But I think I was born at a slight disadvantage when their genes mixed. He was a massive Ojibway dude, and she was a short white chick. I grew up with his bulk, but with her height. My childhood fluctuated between being chubby and awkward and athletically apt. But by the time I got to high school I blossomed into a pretty competent athlete in hockey, baseball, soccer, rugby, and karate. I gave all that up when I went to university, and ended up putting on 30 extra pounds I didn’t need by my third year. When you’re overweight and Aboriginal, diabetes and other health issues stare you right in the eyeballs, so I made a serious effort to get back into shape. I started lifting weights and running, and returned to my “prime” by 23. The Winnipeg winters have put some of that insulation back on the old midsection, but I’m working on getting rid of that for good. Today, this is how I stay active:

Weightlifting

These guns aren’t just for show. I started lifting weights seriously when I was about 19, and found it pretty easy and rewarding right away. I work a different muscle group each time, and to keep it interesting I always try to find new lifting routines. But picking stuff up and putting it down for an hour can get pretty boring. And in those early days, although the cannons were beefing up, I still had a big powder keg in the gut that I had to do something about.

Running

Running when you’re fat is hard. But it paid off quickly, and got easier and easier. Today I try to run at least four times a week for about 45 minutes. When Winnipeg’s not coated with snow and ice, I enjoy running down Wellington Crescent to Assiniboine Park. Otherwise it’s treadmills at the Y. I just learned how to run intervals from Vic and it’s a fun new challenge.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

I’ve always been a huge fan of mixed martial arts. For months, a couple of buddies encouraged me to try Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and I finally gave it a shot in August. I went to a couple of classes at Team Canada MMA here in Winnipeg taught by Rodrigo Munduruca and was hooked. Now I try to go about three times a week (which is about as much as I can handle). It’s the toughest workout I’ve ever done. Every class is an intense physical and mental challenge that pushes your lungs and every muscle in your body to the limit. Plus, you’ve never been humbled until you’ve been arm-barred or choked out.

Dodgeball

As serious and intimidating as BJJ can be, dodgeball is a nice respite on the other end of the recreational spectrum. “Dodgeball?!?” you may ask. “ADULTS play that?” I had the same reaction when a friend at work asked me to join her team. There’s some pretty serious weekly co-ed action through the Winnipeg Rec League at various gyms throughout the city. There’s lots of running, throwing, and, um, dodging that can really get the heart racing. Some geeks take it pretty seriously, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

So this has been my workout routine since October. Who knows if all of it will return me to my “prime”. I am entering my 30s, after all. But I’m having a blast doing it, and it’s keeping me from making lame proclamations every January 1st. Hey diabetes – BRING IT!

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