With Jiu-Jitsu, Wheaton Students Learn Self-Defense and Other Life Lessons

Discipline and community are just two of the reasons students are taking to the sport.

The first time he tried jiu-jitsu, at age 15, Michael Mendez thought he was ready to dominate the mats. But when a female fighter four inches shorter than him quickly defeated him, Mendez realized he needed a reality check. 

In 2016, he started “rolling,” the term for practicing jiu-jitsu with another person, at Brasa Comprido BJJ, a martial arts gym in Bloomingdale. He has been practicing there ever since.

Now a senior music performance major at Wheaton, Mendez is one of a handful of students who have found an off-campus outlet in the ancient martial art of jiu-jitsu (“gentle art”), a fighting style composed of grappling moves, submission holds and ground fighting techniques. 

Although all variations of the sport trace their origins to Japan, the most popular among Wheaton students is Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Rich Michael, a junior biology major, first experimented with Brazilian jiu-jitsu when dorm-mates in Traber invited him to roll in the wrestling room on campus.

Jiu-jitsu is one example of students finding options to work out outside of the Chrouser Sports Center. Photo by Sanya Holm

“A couple of guys who knew a fair amount of technique started teaching us, but it was pretty amateur,” said Michael.

When the leader of the group graduated at the end of last semester, Cade Rex, a senior political science major, found a gym in Naperville where they could continue practicing. Michael said that the gym, called the BJJ Lab, has been more than suitable to the group’s needs and offers excellent instruction. 

Michael said he enjoys the physicality of the sport as well as the mental component in creating strategy.

“It all depends on what you want to get out of it,” he said. “There is something in it for everybody. If you just want a fun activity, you can approach it like that, or if you’re pretty serious about wanting challenging training and progression, there are options for that too.”

Rex, who swam and ran cross country in high school, found himself missing competition-based sports when he got to college, so the competitive nature and gradual progression of jiu-jitsu appealed to him. 

“The training is fun,” said Rex. “It’s slow—so slow. There are people at BJJ Lab who have been training for 10 years. So as someone coming in new, you get better quickly, but you also see how far you have to go.”

Sophomore political science major Jack Peak also practices at the BJJ Lab. He found out about it through a chapel buddy and now goes three times a week. Though he has often watched mixed martial arts (MMA) on television, the group has helped him develop his own combat-sports practice. 

“ are a good thing to get out of the bubble here at Wheaton,” said Peak. “It’s also good to know how to defend yourself.”

Unlike Rex and Peak, sophomore psychology major Mary Corbin began practicing the sport in high school when a family friend and neighbor, who has a black belt in jiu-jitsu, offered to give her and her brother self defense lessons.

Since then, Corbin has earned a brown belt, the rank just below a black belt, a denotation that marks several years of dedicated practice to refining technical skills. At home in Fleetwood, Penn., Corbin has informal lessons in her kitchen. While at Wheaton, however, she has found virtual alternatives in order to practice.

“Here, I practice remotely in my dorm room,” said Corbin. “I haven’t found a good place to practice, so I practice remotely and watch videos of my classes.” 

Like Corbin, Michael Mendez carried his love of jiu-jitsu to college. He began practicing his junior year of high school when an uncle brought him to his martial arts gym. According to Mendez, this experience changed his life.

“I never felt more capable of not just defending yourself, but also realizing another aspect of yourself that God’s created you to do: how to move and navigate through space,” said Mendez. 

After his first training session in jiu-jitsu, Mendez was hooked. “For a lack of better terms, it felt similar to going to a youth retreat and getting a spiritual high,” said Mendez. 

Mendez said he hopes to carry on jiu-jitsu with his future family one day. He wants his kids to be able to defend themselves. 

Rex also said that one of the main reasons for joining the sport was the desire as a man to protect those around him. 

“I don’t think all men need to do jiu-jitsu or any other combat sport, but I think they should have the inclination to protect those around them,” said Rex. “For me, jiu-jitsu was a means to pursue that, to have the ability to care for those around me.”

Corbin said the ability to defend herself with jiu-jitsu has allowed her to feel safe walking alone. 

“I like feeling like I can protect myself or somebody else if I need to,” she said.

Physical ability comes with time and growth. Mendez and Rex both mentioned the humbling aspect of coming in as beginners and struggling to keep up with the higher belts. Rex reflected on the first time he practiced jiu-jitsu.

“The first couple times that you roll, it’s terrifying,” he said. “You have no idea what you’re doing; you might be rolling with a black belt. rolling with someone like that, you just get crushed. But you learn to control the amount of adrenaline that you have.”

All of these students recommend the martial art not only as an excellent way to stay in shape and cultivate self-defense skills but also as a source of community and wisdom. 

“It’s not for everyone, and that’s okay. It doesn’t need to be,” said Rex. “But if it is something you can handle, there are some great life lessons you can learn from this discipline.”

Caroline Sikkink

Caroline Sikkink

Caroline Sikkink is a senior communication major. Originally from Asheville, N.C., she enjoys basketball, raspberries, and documentaries.

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