For most of my childhood and adolescence, I was an athlete. It was a large part of my identity growing up and it has formed an important part of who I am today. I practiced martial arts, did gymnastics, dabbled in basketball and volleyball until I eventually had to commit myself to soccer.
Despite my athletically infused upbringing, I have not considered myself an athlete in many years. I have tried to live a healthy and energizing lifestyle, which for me involves exercise and staying active. But none of the activities I’ve pursued have made me feel like an athlete, until about seven months ago.
Now, whenever I try out a new sport or meet a new coach I tend to keep my expectations low; the words “Never expect, only appreciate” ring in my ear. Entering into fitness classes or athletic scenarios without hands generates an array of responses, most of which are merely unaccommodating. There are worse things than confronting a lack of access or accommodation at the gym or in a coach, but it also does not inspire confidence in me to want to come back. But, what’s life without a little risk.
So on a whim in January 2019, I decided to try out Jiu Jitsu. From the moment my coach opened his mouth and started taking us through the warm-up, I knew this was the start of something. Since that first class, my confidence and excitement for the sport have only grown and stoked in me a competitive fire that has laid latent for far too long.
I think part of the reason I love the sport so much is because it is one of the few athletic endeavors where my not having hands can be a genuine advantage. With most of the sports I have played, my disability has either been ignored entirely or considered something I can “work with” or “adjust for.” But with Jiu Jitsu that has not been my experience. It has in many ways embodied the complexity and nuance of how I experience my disability in daily life. My disability has of course come with increased difficulties and barriers, but it has also opened my mind, made me smarter and better at problem-solving, and instilled in me greater empathy and humility.
In the Jiu Jitsu context, I’ve noticed a parallel. Is it harder for me to get a hold on my opponents? Sure. Do I find it harder to do certain chokes? Absolutely. BUT, can my opponents do arm bars on me? No. Is it harder for them to get control of my arms? It would appear so thus far. So, even in this minimalist list, you can start to see how not having hands is BOTH advantageous and disadvantageous.
I also want to add that from day 1, my coach was excited to teach me and enthusiastic about working with me to help me grow as an athlete. That and finding a really uplifting and supportive community have been game changers! If my coach and the other grapplers had been un-enthused about working with “the disabled girl,” I am sure I would not have had the confidence to return to class and would not be continuing with the sport. So, shout out to one hell of a coach and some really great grapplers and friends!!
I look forward to the opportunities that lie ahead and I am so grateful for the people I have connected with through Jiu Jitsu. I can’t wait to continue pursuing the sport and living into the athlete in me.