The ECU Family
I had been anticipating this day for a long time. Hours and hours of training, gallons of blood, sweat, and tears. I was ready for war. This would be my first competition ever at blue belt - 149 lbs and under; gi division. Interestingly enough, I wasn't too nervous going into the event. I had already gone through so much adversity just to get here - injuries, slumps, etc. I was just happy to be officially competing again.
I arrived around 11:30 AM, registered, weighed in at 145.4 lbs, well under the 149 limit. After that, I began what every competitive BJJ player plays at a tournament: the waiting game. I situated myself with my teammates and tried to relax as we waited for our respective divisions to come up. First up was none other than our leader, Jojo Guarin.
Jojo also gets a gold medal for having the cutest daughter in the world!
He fought a hard match and thoroughly dominated his opponent on his way to a strong victory on points. He constantly had his opponent on the defensive, gained many dominant positions and had even more submission attacks of every kind. In short, he ran a clinic. Leading the way, his performance definitely inspired me and the rest of my teammates to follow suit. And as the rest of my teammates competed, while there were wins and losses, fair and unfair, I felt that EVERYONE fought tough and represented ECU BJJ to the fullest. I knew I had my work cut out for me to keep up the pace.
Finally, my division was called. My fellow opponents congregated to our mat to check in. I also noticed that we were all cautiously eying each other, trying to size each other up. I went to the other side of the scorer's table to get away from that and avoid psyching myself out. There was still some downtime as we waited to officially get started so I did my best to not let my nerves get the best of me and stay loose.
Jojo also took me aside to offer a personal pep talk. He told me to be aggressive, not to think too much and to just let my game flow - let the chips fall where they may. Most importantly, he told me not to put too much pressure on myself (which I tend to do) and to just have fun. I spent the final minutes stretching, warming up and controlling my breathing to prevent an adrenaline dump in the middle of my fight. Soon enough, it was my turn to fight!
As soon as I stepped on the mats I could feel various switches in my body go on and off. All of a sudden, I had selective hearing and could only hear Jojo and my teammate, Tom, yell out instructions to me. My mind was completely blank and I was essentially fighting off muscle memory and instinct. Does this happen to you guys? Importantly, I did not feel particularly panicky or anxious. Nervous, sure, but mentally I felt in control of my emotions, not the the other way around. The match itself, which you can see, was probably a little boring for spectators. It was a tough fought 0-0 match that I won by advantage points. While it may have looked uneventful, I can assure you that we were both working very hard for position and grips. I was just lucky to have outworked my opponent this time, who I later met and is a great guy.
One of the critical points during this match was towards the final minute or so of the fight where I was in my opponent's half guard but controlling him. At around the 5:02 mark of the video, you can see me looking over to Jojo, who informed me that I was up on advantage points and told me to hold my position. This was just a small example of Jojo's acute awareness and coaching ability. Without him there, I would not have been aware of the score and probably would've risked losing my position to try to score points, endangering my chance at a win, and ultimately, a medal. Jojo 100% coached me to victory.
When the buzzer rang and the referee held my hand up...man, what a great feeling! It was my first competition in over three years and my first at the blue belt level and I had emerged victorious. Most satisfying was the happiness my friends, teammates, and most of all, Jojo, had for me. They all knew, especially Jojo, the long road I had taken to both get my blue belt and back on the competition scene. Being able to pay a small dividend on the countless hours my coach and teammates had invested me was probably one of the most fulfilling experiences I've had on my BJJ journey. I was happy that the hard work I put in the match reflected the hard work they had all put into me. It was definitely a blue collar win - especially since I was literally wearing a blue collar hahaha. Jojo was particularly happy for me and took me aside to talk to me after my first match. He looked me directly in the eyes and told me something that will resonate with me for a long, long time:
"You belong in this division"
This was as firm as anything Jojo has told me in the now four years I have been training with him and struck me very deeply. And while I definitely suffer from confidence issues in my BJJ game, Jojo was essentially affirming my rank as a blue belt and that I belonged in the competitive mix with any of the other blue belts out there, and he wanted to make sure that I knew that, and more importantly, believed it. I will be honest with you - this was an awesome thing to hear from someone I look up to so much and I will carry this with me in my training and future competitions.
But now, it was time for the finals!!
It would be entirely way too self-serving if I didn't post this match because it's only fair that I present my shortcomings along with my successes, especially because I went to BED! It's hard to tell from the video but my opponent put me to sleep with that bow and arrow choke! I definitely felt in danger and was trying to fight it off but did not feel close to where I had to tap. Next thing I know, I'm off in la-la land and wake up with the referee standing over me trying to get me to come to!!
It was a tough way to lose but to be honest, I was still very happy with my performance. I had actually seen this guy compete before and he is a very, very tough guy and had just knocked off a 4-stripe blue belt to get to the finals. In fact, nobody had even scored a point on him going into the finals, so it was pretty satisfying to get that big double leg takedown on him. It was definitely cool to hear everyone get fired up for that. I just wish the end result was better! Most importantly, it was a great learning experience. I realized that I could gamely hang in there with the best of them in my division - a HUGE confidence boost for me. I also learned that I need to work on guard passing (specifically de la riva), and to work harder to play my game and not into my opponent's. Oh yeah, and defending against the freaking bow and arrow!
All in all, it was an awesome day! I learned so much from both a personal and BJJ perspective and I am eager to get out there and compete again. I even spent some time talking with both of my opponents at length after it was done - they are both great, tough guys and I hope I get the chance to compete with them again. Just as BJJ is an addiction in and of itself, competing in it is like a sub-addiction - I can't wait to get back out there again!
Most of all, I am so grateful to have a great coach, great friends and great teammates. Even though so many people were competing, everyone found time to give me personal attention during and after my matches. Our school is like one big family and I am really fortunate just to be a part of it. I feel as much a part of ECU and this sport than ever before.
Thanks for all of your support and LETS GO GIANTS!
Not bad for a day's work!