I’m on the road, and it’s about time! This post is a few days overdue, but driving 1,000 miles in four days takes up way more time than one would anticipate. Let’s dive into my first week on the road! I trained at a number of gyms this week, but this post is going to focus on the first gym I stopped at away from home: Roots Athletics.
Tucked away off Brandywine Street in Historic Philadelphia, a small crew of incredibly dedicated, talented athletes has taken up shop at Roots Athletics. I actually first heard about Roots almost a year ago after seeing a Jits Magazine post about one of their then-blue belts, Morgan Beverly. Morgan had been in the process of starting up here YouTube channel/vLog that she’d dedicated to her jiu jitsu life. From her YouTube, I’d ended up following her on Instagram and, in the process, saw how inherently beautiful her gym was.
Although I’ve lived in the greater New York City area my entire life, I’d never made the two-hour journey to my former nation’s capital of Philly. Although the thought of Philly Cheesesteaks combined with a number of “Rocky” viewings stirred my curiosity about visiting, the opportunity never arose to take a trip. Finally, when planning my trip, it just seemed natural that I’d stop in Philly along the way.
I left New Jersey on Tuesday morning after spending the last few days for a while with my girlfriend. Although the goodbye was tearful, there was an immense curiosity and excitement that rumbled in my belly. I had Facebook messaged Roots the previous day asking if I could come by for their 11 a.m. Gi class; they swiftly responded saying they’d be happy to have me. I drove into Philly right around 10:30 and found the gym by 10:45 after getting turned around once or twice. I’m used to driving in Manhattan, but Philly was a different ballgame.
I walked into the gym and was impressed by the sheer cleanliness of the school: the pristine white mats, the full apparel shop right when you walk in, the plants that added a touch of clean ruggedness to the aura, etc. Everything had a place, and every place had a thin4g.
I was greeted by a number of students sitting by the front desk who were getting ready for class. Kyle, one of the senior purple belts, introduced himself and had me fill out a waiver before showing me to the locker room. I got changed, took a breath, and stepped on the mats.
The head instructor, Levi LeBlond, introduced himself, asked a few questions about my trip and the Globetrotters blog, and seemed thoroughly interested in everything I was doing with my journey; I could tell this was a guy who truly cared about those who he taught (even if they weren’t his regular students!) I was then introduced to Professor Gilson Fernandes, an intense (but incredibly kind) Brazilian who I’d soon find out was Levi’s instructor. As it turns out, I’d come into town on the second day of Gilson’s three-day stretch in Philly, during which he was teaching classes at Roots!
Overall, the 10am class was very typical of most BJJ classes I’ve taken: a short calisthenic warm up, positional drilling, then rolling at the end of class. There were about nine people, ranging from white belts to purple belts. Although the class was typical, I was struck by how GOOD these guys and girls were. The everyone, even the newer white belts, had incredible top pressure, tight open guard games, positional awareness I’d only dreamed of at white belt, and so on. I found myself struggling as their games matched mine very similarly; spider guard, De la Riva, RDLR, etc. It was a strange feeling, having my game so similarly matched, but an amazing one nonetheless.
After class ended, Professor Levi thanked me for coming and asked if I’d be back for that night’s 7pm Competition Class. I hadn’t planned on training twice that day, and had planned on seeing as much of the city as I could before heading to Washington D.C. the next day, but I accepted the invitation gladly. Morgan joked, “You should probably write your Globetrotters blog before comp class!” and then mimicked some struggled typing. We all got a good chuckle out of that. I went to the bathroom, showered, and headed off to see the city! Before I left, I’d asked Levi if I could wash my Gi in one of the washers in the locker room. He told me to drop my Gi in the hamper and that they’d have it ready for me when I got back to class that night.
Before walking out the door, I asked the room full of Philadelphia natives a slightly controversial question: “Where am I getting my Philly Cheesesteak?”
I was met with a number of suggestions, but the unanimous winner was Jim’s on South Street. Well, Jim’s on South Street, you were about to meet a cheesesteak fiend. I drove the ten minutes from the gym to South St. and parked around the corner from Jim’s. South Street was quite the sight: thrift shops, food shops, oddities stores, and even the so-called “Condom World”. The thought popped into my head how lucky I was to be living my dream.
I walked into Jim’s, ordered my PCS with Provolone (not a fan of Cheese Whiz, Sorry friends!), got my sandwich, and went to dig in. My thoughts? The sandwich was good, but slightly disappointing. The steak was dry and slightly lacking in flavor. I might have made the mistake of not getting whiz. Oh well. Live and learn!
No trip to Philly would be complete without the Rocky steps. I drove across town, parked my car, and within minutes was standing at the base of the Philadelphia Art Museum. I took the sight in, and left without running up the steps. There was something about the droves of middle school field trips that made running up the steps seem, I don’t know, cheesy. If I was gonna do it, it was gonna be wearing grey sweats and a winter hat in the dead of winter.
I walked back to my car and, having a few hours to kill, decided to organize my car a little bit. I’ll be doing a full rundown of my excursion Jeep soon, so stay tuned! With an hour and a half left before class, I decided to take a last minute trip to see some of the more historical parts of Philly: Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. I’ve never been much of a fan of tourist centrals, but I DO love American History.
I walked back into the gym for 7pm class, grabbed my clean Gi, suited up, and stepped back on the mats. I was surprised to see that the class was being taught by Professor Gilson; he’d only watched the morning class. Little did I know, I was in for quite the ringer. Warm Ups seemed to go on forever: a short calisthenic workout was superseded by 15 minutes of non-stop standup drills. Standing grip breaks, double leg entries, judo throw entries, sprawls, etc. By the end of warming up, I was drenched with sweat. My eyes burned as sweat drained from my bald head into my eyes, my lungs burned as they struggled for oxygen, my legs and hips cramped. This was only the beginning.
Professor Gilson had us split up into teams of three. He emphasized that, although jiu jitsu is a very personal sport, teamwork is imperative to success. In fact, it’s so imperative that, in one teammate fails, so does everyone else. One person was instructed to lay on their back with their knees up. Another teammate was told to stand in front of the person on the ground. The person standing was told to remove their belt and give it to the third person. The third person then wrapped the belt around the standing teammate. The standing teammate was told to try and pass the guard of the person on their back, and the third team member was to pull on the belt to keep that from happening. The person on their back was to avoid having their guard passed using only hip movement, inversions, frames, etc., but NO grips. Essentially, one person was wrangling a bull, and the bull was trying to catch the rodeo clown. The catch? If the person on their back had their guard passed, not only would THEY have to do 20 push ups; the person holding the guard passer would as well. When one fails, so does everyone else.
The rest of competition class consisted of these “partner-fails, everyone-fails” drills. Professor Gilson would joke, “Now I’m going to make you guys hate me just a little. But I promise! It’s the last one. I Promise.”
It was never the last one.
We did an incredibly entertaining drill which Gilson said he would use at his academy in Brazil for upper belts who were competing in the near future. An upper belt would choose two lower belts; a brown belt would chose a blue belt and a white belt, for example. The brown belt was told that the two lower belt were going to attack them at the same time. Their goal? Submit the lower belts. The goal for the lower belts? Kill the brown belt. This drill was incredible, and something I hope to bring back to my home gym one day.
Finally, after almost an hour and fifteen minutes of torturous drilling, it was time to roll. The room was tense. People were struggling to breathe; grown men and women pushed to their limits, trying to hold themselves up. Gasping for water. What was most incredible, however, was the teamwork. If you tried sitting down? Someone would come pick you up. If you stopped walking? Someone would grab your Gi and get you moving again. It was pure, and it was what jiu jitsu was about.
Professor Gilson stood in the middle of the circle and said through his thick, Brazilian accent, “You’re all tired. You can no use strength. Now is when jiu jitsu happens.” We were about to roll, yes. But, more importantly, we were about to do jiu jitsu. We partnered up and started rolling. I was struck again by how technical these students were. I was inspired, and really felt welcome. I rolled with a brown belt, three purple belts, a blue belt, and two white belts. When rolls ended, I assumed class was over. Wrong again.
“Time for cooldowns. Circle up!” boomed Levi’s voice.
Uh Oh. Cooldowns consisted of a pyramid set of calisthenic drills/exercises; sprawls, sit ups, push ups, and mountain climbers. It was simple, but deadly. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, next exercise. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9, next exercise. All the way down to 1-1-1-1. It seems that every competition class has some type of extra bit thrown in at the end of it. I’m starting to realize that this is the “Mental Toughness” part of jiu jitsu. You push yourself to the absolute limit, then push yourself more. You don’t give up until you need to be dragged from where you collapse.
After cooling down, everyone in class circled up and put their hands in. The feeling of camaraderie was overwhelming. I was pulled into the circle as if I was a regular part of the family. I’ve always known that jiu jitsu was a universal language, but this was something more. Jiu Jitsu builds families. In that moment, I wasn’t a stranger; I wasn’t just some blue belt coming in to train; I was family.
Here’s a HUGE thanks to everyone at Roots Athletics for letting my come train. Thank you for pushing me and thank you for training! The crew at Roots is already making huge strides on the competition scene; Morgan and Kyle are heading off to Worlds in a few days, already reeling from wins at the New York and Boston Open, as well as F2W Pro fights. I asked Levi in the locker room after class regarding what makes his gym so different from others in Philly. Simply put, he said:
“We offer and experience no one else does. We’re trying to bring Jiu Jitsu into 2017.”
I’d say they’ve already succeeded. Thanks again fellas!
Photo Credits: There were a ton of photos I didn’t find a place for in this post, but for most of the good pictures in this post were done by Kyle Huang. Follow him on Instagram @kylehuangphotography_ for some awesome material!