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Notes From A Middle-Aged Grappler: Submitting to Reality

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On August 6th of this year, I turned 40. If you assume that my reaching this landmark age was riddled with the angst associated with most mid-life crises, you’d be absolutely correct. A huge part of my angst came from the fact that as I was approaching four decades I had suffered a significant injury; jiu-jitsu was my escape, physically and mentally, and it had been taken from me at what I felt was a critical point in my life. As any practitioner understands, BJJ certainly makes you grapple (sorry) with your own mortality, and I’m here to tell you that struggle is only exacerbated by age and injury.

Flashback: in December of 2012, I suffered what was my second back injury while training. This one was more severe, producing a tell-tale pop in my spine, along with immediate and significant pain. I was carried off the mat, and in-between the surges of agony a raging duel of “Yep, this is the end of BJJ for me!” and “No way, I’m not going out like this!” argued back and forth in my brain. The day after the injury involved the humiliation of using a walker to make it to the doctor’s office, which was easily the lowest point of the experience. Overnight I had gone from a guy who felt like he had the skills to defend himself adequately to a man who couldn’t walk. Overnight I had gone from being relatively healthy to being debilitated. Overnight, I felt old—older than I had ever felt before.

I won’t spend a lot of time rehashing the injury and the recovery here. (I will, however, give a shout-out to my physical therapist, Robin Tappy, who nursed me back to physical health while also serving as my sports psychologist). The prognosis was ultimately one torn disc, and one bulging disc right above it. Again, anyone who trains in BJJ knows that injuries are just part of the territory, and that fighting through them is a huge part of your progression as a practitioner, so you certainly know what I went through: it hurt for a while, I committed to physical therapy, encountered an emotional rollercoaster of exhilaration and frustration, and ultimately whined a lot about my plight to my wife.

Tentatively I returned to Great Grappling, with my purple belt in tow, at the start of last summer. Though I had steeled myself against the reality of how out of shape I was going to be, how my old muscle memory would fail me, and how my timing would be way off, I still encountered a rude awakening. Sparring, obviously, was no picnic. My lack of mobility (and always-inherent lack of athleticism) did not serve me well against my skilled (but merciful) training partners who had dramatically improved over six months, or against the new, young, and athletic faces who kindly made me feel like I had never trained BJJ at all (related: I loathe young and athletic people).

Immediately I was cursing the stupid spin class I had been going to and the boring laps I had swum in an attempt to ramp up my cardio for my “triumphant” return, because I was on the mat huffing and puffing one-third of the way through a round, hoping my training partner would submit me slowly so I could catch my breath.

I was submitted by my peers, by “lower” belts, and possibly even by a young child—I’m not really sure, since those first couple of weeks back are now just an oxygen-deprived haze. Yes, it was somewhat pathetic. But here’s the thing: I loved every minute of it.

The semi-happy ending here isn’t about any sort of perseverance on my part or how to fight through injuries or any of that “age isn’t a number!” mumbo-jumbo. I am older, and the way I approach BJJ would’ve changed, with or without the injury.

The message is to enjoy BJJ while you can, and to never take it for granted. I enjoy BJJ now more than I ever have, simply because I had to face, for the first time, the possibility that it might be taken away from me. I always knew how much I loved it, and how integral it was to my physical fitness, but today I have a deeper understanding of how entwined it is with my emotional well-being, and even my identity. That’s why I’ll never take it for granted again. Maybe in hindsight that seems melodramatic, but I can assure you that was my thought process at the time, melodramatic or not.

Today I’m still not quite what I used to be. I’m getting there, but as any middle-aged grappler knows, coming back gets harder each and every time. I have what I call a “new normal.” But this “new normal” is a topic for another post, for another day. For now, I’m perfectly happy just being here.

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