Swimming Up: How Training At A New Gym Gave A BJJ Beginner The Motivation To Keep Going

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The following is a guest post from freelance writer and BJJ white belt Julie Simpson.

I have always been a good swimmer. As a child, I spent years in lakes and pools, and as an adult, I have swum countless laps and triathlon distances. However, even though I’ve spent my entire life feeling safe and strong in the water, I had never experienced drowning until I started practicing jiu-jitsu. 

When I was ready to give the sport a try, I researched local gyms in our area and headed out. On that first day, I awkwardly stood on the threshold of the gym and felt immediate panic and terror. What was I doing? I was not prepared for this. As I was about to leave, I was called to, paired up, and told to “get to work.”

I did my best to pretend to know what I was doing. To pretend I understood the words my coach was saying, to pretend I fit in. I thought I was in the wrong class. I kept waiting for someone to come over and give me personal instruction and show me the “basics.” Except that never happened. On that first day, I was thrown into the deepest part of the water. I sunk to the bottom, and I have been there ever since. 

After eight months of training, I hit a terrible plateau. I remember coming home in a rage. I felt like I was awful and that my white belt was “so white, it should be transparent.” Every time I went to the gym, I got smashed, and I had nothing to show for my time except terrible bruises and cool spats. 

A few weeks went by, and I didn’t go back. I called these my “dark days,” and I was cranky, annoyed, and frankly, I missed jiu-jitsu. But how could I miss something that I was utterly terrible at? I had never swept anyone at my gym. I couldn’t execute an arm drag, and I most certainly couldn’t land a submission. My arms were pulling up, and my legs were kicking fast, but I was still fully submerged.  

One night, my husband came home with a gi and handed it to me. He said that maybe I should change it up and try training in it. I was hesitant. We don’t train in gis at our gym, and if I wanted to use it, I would have to go somewhere else.

Thinking about going to another gym filled me with unease. I already struggled so much with being a spazzy white belt that I was unsure it would be any different elsewhere.  However, in the end, the curiosity of how I would “stack up” somewhere else won.

I put on the gi and went to another well respected BJJ gym in our area. As I stood on yet another gym threshold, I kept waiting for the same panic and terror to seep in. 

Except this time, it didn’t come. I fell in line with the other practitioners during warmups, and I kept up. I paired with a partner who worked the drills and positions with me, and I understood him. 

When it was time for freerolls, I didn’t have to pretend to know what I was doing. I saw an opening, and I was able to execute a legitimate sweep. After months of drowning in the deep water, I finally found a pocket of air —I landed my first sweep. 

I took me putting on a gi and testing my mettle at another gym to realize that I wasn’t on the bottom anymore. Somewhere between my first panic-filled day and that first sweep,  I had moved. Every time I hit the mats, every time I tapped, every time I struggled through instruction, I swam up in the water. This progress was so minute that I didn’t even realize it — until I found my way into that pocket of air.

It took me eight months to execute one single sweep. With that one move, the amount of air I found was staggering. At this point, I’m not sure how long I can hold it in my lungs. But I can say this: I will find another pocket of air. I will keep swimming up. I am a great swimmer, and it is only a matter of time until you see me pop above the surface. 


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