If anyone had told me that I could have found any type of jiu-jitsu training on Prince Edward Island, then I would have been skeptical. When I found Gracie PEI, I was expecting to find three or four bar-brawlers talking ninja shit in a basement, but what I found was much different. August marks the nine month mark in what I hope to be a lifelong jiu-jitsu journey, and while nine months means I am a total beginner, it also means that I am a survivor of the fear, anxiety, doubt and physical challenges that face every beginner in this martial art. While I may never fully expel the emotions and demons of the first segment of the journey, I am proud to have lasted beyond many similar classmates who started when I did not all that long ago.
This summer has offered me a triumvirate of truly exceptional opportunities to train with schools outside of Toronto. From one ocean to the other and the space in between, I have had the the good fortune to train in schools that all had one thing in common: superb, welcoming students and teachers. I may not be the all-star student who visits other academies for tiny improvements, but I am a thankful student who values the major concepts I have learn from professors who each have their own curriculum approach and team. Being able to visit academies, train with new people, and build positive connections with practitioners across the world is unique to Brazilian jiu-jitsu in many ways. I cannot imagine doing a drop-in on a karate school or judo dojo quite so easily, and while I have done yoga in a few places, the experience is much different and much more insular.
Gracie PEI was founded in 2011 when owner, Professor Paul Abel, moved from Bolton, Ontario to the Island. Wulfrun MMA is also based out of the academy and is home to professional fighters, Jason Saggo and Matt MacGrath. As a Gracie Humaitá Academy, the focus of the gym is to provide martial arts training that extends beyond a sports-only approach. I appreciate the Gracie methodology. Knowing that the techniques learned in class have applications on the street as well as on the mats adds value to the training. Speaking with Professor Abel has been such a nice way to begin class, as he knows I am from out of town and visiting my mom. He has checked in to see how I enjoyed the previous class and just to talk about his aspirations with the academy. Given that both of the Fundamentals classes I have attended had 25 students in the session, I would say that Paul is doing extremely well to attract and keep students in a market where jiu-jitsu is relatively unknown. On an island where money is tight, keeping paying students is a testament to the value they have found in their training.
The gym itself feels clean, professional and like a safe place to practice. Hulk-smash egos are clearly left at the door. The mats are smooth versus the tatami texture, which my toes were happy to feel; no abrasions on the tops of my toes this time around. An MMA-style cage is also an excellent “little fish tank” where I enjoyed sparring and drilling with my first partner who had just begun his second class. Being able to go to a separate space to practice the basic omoplata drill really helped to relieve the pressure that can come from a new move then being extended before newer students are confident to move forward.
In my first class, Instructor Lance Campbell, led us through a Gracie Combatives wrist lock from standing position and then the main lesson focused on learning a basic omoplata drill from guard. As I had only one previous lesson on the omoplata, it was really useful for me to spend the hour drilling the move with a beginner who was eager to learn. I appreciated the instructor feedback and always felt like we were making progress from both sides. In the end, I came away with understanding the move much better and should be able to insert it into rolling soon. Rolling ran about 20 minutes at the end of class, and I aimed to give my partner a positive experience. He was quite strong, so my approach was to go with his strength and play mostly on the bottom, which seems to be where I end up anyway. I did submit him in a guillotine to closed guard, but he definitely rolled with a lot of heart and eagerness to figure things out. I never imagined that jiu-jitsu would have me rolling with a fisherman from Murray Harbour; it was a beautiful thing, indeed.
My second class, so far, had a guest instructor in from Ontario, Jason Figliano. Professor Abel’s first blackbelt student came in to lead us through what was Lesson 16 in his school’s curriculum: sweep and arm bar from closed guard. I have not been much of a guard player since badly injuring my groin muscles in May, but last night’s class gave me a reason to take guard even if I cannot hold it for long. All I need is long enough to move to either the sweep or the arm bar we learned. It will take a while to burn those into my memory, but both of these moves seemed like they would be excellent options for my game.
Class went by quickly and I ended by rolling five times with the white belts at the academy. From the very beginning I decided to abandon my ego and only roll without strength. I decided to only support my partners in a positive way and keep them interested in rolling. I see no value in me going in to smash partners who are only a few classes into their journey. I do see value in using the time to learning how to protect myself against a wide variety of body types and natural abilities. One opponent felt lost, another could not abandon the idea of grabbing an arm bar, one struggled with pressure, and one was a master at the rear naked choke, which he caught me in once. All of the rolls were fun. For me to be able to go for five rounds without becoming exhausted was also a milestone. I did have one more roll. A teenage boy started his first class last night. As he stood by the mats trying to figure out what was going on, I decided to ask him to roll. Now I had forgotten that I overheard the instructor say that he would not get to roll, but my intention was to make him feel like he was making the right choice by coming by including him. As a teacher of young boys, I have a pretty solid idea of how to help them develop, so I decided to ease him through a soft roll where I tried to help him tie together what we had learned in class with moving through the basic position hierarchy. I felt the experience went pretty well for the boy, and hopefully I did not cross any lines for new students. I did hear one student tell me that it was pretty cool for me to do that, which also felt pretty cool to hear.
In the end, Gracie PEI is a superb gym to visit. I cannot recommend it enough for anyone visiting Prince Edward Island for a few days or weeks. Faculty are exceptional, daily mat fees run around $20, and my experiences have all been positive. I hope to make it to class a few more times before I head back to Toronto. If I do, then I will have more to write about.Even if I do not, then I know that I have an exceptional place to train anytime I come home.