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RYAN CLARK: USING JIU JITSU TO DEAL WITH AN INCURABLE DISEASE

Professor Ryan Clark

“Here I was; a 3rd degree Jiu Jitsu Black Belt – with all these students that are looking to me to teach them – and I didn’t/don’t even know if I’ll even be able to walk within a few months.”

Anyone training Jiu Jitsu already knows it can be very therapeutic; helping to clear your mind and cleanse the soul. People love the gentle art for its ability to give them an outlet to escape from the world and focus on the task at hand. People who train also know there’s a lot of bumps, bruises, tweaks, sprains, strains and sometimes breaks that come along with the territory. Injuries are a normal part of learning and training Jiu Jitsu. With most injuries you can self diagnose the problem, throw some tape or ice on it, and call it good. However, there may be something more to what you think is an injury and even more to what you think is just a training partner. I know, for me, this was the case – and it changed my life forever.

We all know that working your stand-up / throwing game can be particularly rough.  Break falling over and over certainly takes its toll on the body.  Recently I had been working a lot of throws at my gym, along with a lot of sparring rounds. The morning after training, I woke up and my feet were numb. Because we’d been working so many break falls, I just assumed I had pinched a nerve in my back and didn’t think much of it. I went back to teaching and training that day like nothing was wrong – after all, I’ve been hurt so many times training before, I thought this was an easy Chiropractic fix. One day went by and the numbness expanded very quickly up to my chest, down my torso, into my left hand, and into both legs. Still, I thought this was going to be an easy fix. All I needed to do was go to the Chiropractor and it would all go away.  After a week and a half of continuous numbness, my wife ended up scheduling me a Chiropractor visit.  The Chiropractor examined my symptoms for about a half hour, only to say she was not comfortable treating me and suggested I see a Neurologist.  After hearing this, I STILL thought all I needed was an adjustment and couldn’t figure why she would have me go to a specialist.  I ended up doing what she suggested and the next day I got diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

MS is a disease were the immune system attacks the protective sheath (myelin) that covers nerve fibers and causes communication problems between your brain and the rest of your body. Eventually, the disease can cause permanent damage or deterioration of the nerves. This news for me was especially painful. My mother had MS as far back as I can remember and eventually passed away because of complications with it in 2011. Over the course of my life I watched this disease destroy her life. My whole childhood was spent in and out of hospitals; I never thought I would be revisiting this disease 8 years after her passing.

After receiving my diagnosis, my first response was that I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell anyone. I was afraid I would be treated differently, or people just wouldn’t understand.  Here I was; a 3rd degree Jiu Jitsu Black Belt – with all these students that are looking to me to teach them – and I didn’t/don’t even know if I’ll even be able to walk within a few months. Who wants to train at a gym where the instructor’s in a wheelchair? This idea was very troubling for me.

Even though I was originally unsure about letting my students know my situation, I rapidly started to think that telling everyone was a way for me to take this burden off my shoulders and get the support I knew I needed.  Rather than sweep my problem under the rug, I decided the Universe was trying to tell me something and I now felt like I should be a voice for this disease, and a voice for other people trying to deal with uncertainty.  I found myself becoming more and more positive about my situation by telling more and more people. This was such a strange turn of events! Really what it came down to was the support I got from my family at home and my family at my gym. I came to realize the real power of what a Jiu Jitsu gym could be; a place where people come together with whatever issue they may be dealing with and to use the gym as a support system.  I know some people may use the gym as a way to escape their problem, but for me I found that keeping this news to myself goes against what my gym was truly about.  It was very clear to me I needed to fill everyone in on the news because my first day back on the mat, after receiving the news, I felt so uncomfortable teaching. It felt like I was hiding a dark secret and I had a difficult time being myself.  It became so much easier to cope with when everyone knew, treats, and trains with me the same as they always would.

Turns out I have a ton of support from everyone that I might not have seen had I kept all this under the rug. Because of all the support I’ve become more confident with myself and my situation. It made me realize I have more of a purpose to be on the mat teaching and training. It’s also helped me understand just how important a positive attitude is.  Letting the “cat out of the bag” about my disease was the best thing I could have done for myself. I’ve hit this thing head on and have all the support in the world.

That fact of the matter is you have to listen to your body. Sometimes as Jiu Jitsu practitioners we get caught up in feeling like we’re untouchable and too healthy to get help or get looked at by a doctor. It’s very easy to adopt an “everything’s fine” attitude. Some practitioners may need other forms of assistance and feel like they don’t want to “bother anyone with my problem.” I’ve always thought it was important as a coach or professor to teach your students about injuries and how to listen to their body. Every time I teach a joint lock I always explain what is happening mechanically so they understand the importance of control and the tap.  I try to educate my students about common injuries they may face in learning an art like Jiu Jitsu. It’s funny how sometimes as an instructor you can preach one thing to your students, like going to the doctor when your hurt, but when it comes to yourself you think everything’s fine. Physical injuries are not the only issue that can arise. Mental and Emotional stability is also a very big issue for a lot of people.  Understand warning signs and know when to seek help.

More than ever I realize that a gym should be a place where there’s more than just good training. It’s about being around like-minded people that share their passion for martial arts but also a place where we can come together to help one another out. Everybody has something going on in their life. You never know how much your rolling partner needs you and Jiu Jitsu. It may be more than you think.

Train with your team, drill, push each other, try to tap your partners, and keep the pressure on. But when the training is over, remember to take time to cool down, stretch, and talk to one another.  It may seem small and insignificant, but it could really make a difference for someone and change their life.

Professor Ryan Clark started Jiu Jitsu in 1992 and is a 3rd degree Black Belt under Wellington “Megaton” Dias. Ryan and his wife Stormy and two daughters Sydney and Taylor live in Bend, Oregon where he owns and operates Clarks University of Martial Arts.
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