I originally wrote this post on Grapplings, my jiu jitsu site, in December of 2019 – a few months before the world shut down. I'm reposting here tonight because Marcelo Garcia, who gave me my blue belt, announced last week that he has stomach cancer.
It's heartbreaking news, especially considering Marcelo's young family and the tragedy they've already endured. I don't have the words to explain how important Marcelo is to the jiu jitsu community, but Alan "Gumby" Marques did a pretty good job of that here.
This is a small story of the impact he's had on me.
My first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class was freshman year at the University of Illinois in 1998. UFC had just introduced BJJ to the world a few years earlier, and I didn't appreciate how fortunate I was to have a brown belt (!) instructor in Jack McVicker despite living in a town of 60,000 people surrounded by cornfields
I trained inconsistently during my five years in Champaign-Urbana. I picked up some stuff but never really progressed. I've told the story of that chapter of my life elsewhere, but suffice to say that "inconsistency" was a dominate theme.
I left school without a degree in 2003. When I left school, I left jiu jitsu. Of course, I didn't think I had quit. I thought I was just on hiatus. There were even a few false starts over the ensuing 14 years, but I never cultivated the right combination of routine, motivation, and discipline to make it stick.
Truthfully, I hadn't found a way to make any fitness routine stick. I gained a couple pounds a year, and as I moved into my late 30s, and it became increasingly apparent that I could either actively improve my fitness, or my fitness was going to actively decline. The days of stasis were over. My daughter, Emma, was getting bigger, and I found myself hesitating before getting on the floor to play with her, and exerting extra caution when picking her up. It wasn't a trajectory I liked.
Soon after we moved to New York, I realized that Marcelo Garcia Academy was just ten blocks from my office. Marcelo Garcia's widely considered to be one of the greatest jiu jitsu competitors in history. In a different sport, this would be like Serena Williams opening racket club and teaching classes herself. At some point, I either had to take advantage of the opportunity, or admit that I was never going to do it again.
On one hand, I always thought I'd get back into jiu jitsu. I even bought a backpack a year prior based on the premise of "when I start doing jiu jitsu again, this bag will fit my gi" (I still have that bag, and it does!) On the other hand, I never really thought I'd get my Blue Belt. Lingering in the back of my mind was the fear that my jiu jitsu story would be something like: he had a good opportunity, got in early (1998 was so early!), dipped his toe in, learned a few things, but didn't follow through.
Of course, my real fear was that being the story of my life: punctuated by good opportunities and impressive starts, but lacking the consistency to amount to anything notable.
One day in March 2018, I was at therapy. My therapist and I didn't have a very good connection at the time. I didn't think she was very good at her job, and it was the fourth session in a row where I had spent 40 minutes thinking, "this has been a waste of time." But I usually got what felt like a small morsel of value at the end. This session that morsel was, "Grit." She wrapped a definition around a set of qualities I wanted to improve upon.
I walked out of that session and thought, "I know a better way to develop grit..."
Her office was up on 38th, my office was on 18th, and Marcelo Garcia's Academy was on 23rd. On my way back, I walked straight into Marcelo's got information on signing up, and started class the following week.
That was March 2018. Almost two years later, one week before my 40th birthday – I was promoted to Blue Belt by Marcelo Garcia.
At MGA, I have the privilege of sharing the mats with past, present, and future world champions. I will never be world class at jiu jitsu – but I like being in the room with guys who are. Between family, work, and other activities where I choose to spend my time, I only train 2-3 times a week, ~3 weeks a month. But as I've gotten older, it's been the areas where I've replaced intensity with consistency where I've seen the most growth. 2-3 times a week isn't much, but I've stuck to that cadence for over two years now – and that's something I was seemingly incapable of doing in my 20s.
I don't need to win tournaments, get my black belt, or even get good. My longterm jiu jitsu goal is simply "to still be doing it in ten years." I told this to Paul Schreiner, Marcelo's head instructor, on the night of the promos after he congratulated me. He said, "You know the funny thing? If you achieve that goal, you'll probably be a black belt."