Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sempai BobSpar


I'm sore, I'm tired, but I'm elated--I got my black belt today.

It's been almost two and a half years since I last tested. That was when my ACL got snapped in two.

I felt like my mind was somewhat calm (if worried) coming into the test, but my body was very anxious. And while my mind was worried about things like failing in front of people, my body was anxious about my knee. My left knee was hurting walking down the steps of the terraced parking lot to the test site, at a college in suburban New Jersey.

I was in what we called the "geriatric ring," a station for people 35 and older. I'm not entirely certain, but I believe that, at 52, I was the oldest candidate in the group. Most of the candidates seemed to be in their 40s, and maybe a few were late 30s.

I flew through the pushups; the situps were tougher because I was told I needed to get down lower, touching more of my lower back to the mat.

Then I waited, and waited, and waited. All the other candidates had to go through all the parts of the test I passed before. While waiting, I struggled with the "fight or flight" reaction--I had to keep telling myself, you've done this before, you've been grappling hard, you've learned a lot, go in there when it's time and go for it.

The following is very technical about grappling, sorry! If you wish to skip the detail, please go to the final two paragraphs.

When it was time for grappling--before which I stretched and did pushups to get my body warm--I was initially paired with the person I thought was the weakest opponent. I told myself, don't assume he's not tough. But I did feel that if I didn't do well against him, it would be troubling to me and the judges.

All the work in recent weeks I've put into grappling paid off. There were so many things I did that I only learned while in my training for this test in the past two or three months. I went in, as Steve suggested, with a plan for what to do in each position, and I executed it. With this first opponent, I ended up getting him to tap out twice--once in a chicken wing from when I had him in my guard, and once with an L-lock when I had swept him and mounted him. (Addendum: In retrospect, I think I tapped him out a third time in a guillotine.)

My confidence soared--I was off to a good start.

Then came the second four-minute match. This opponent, another brown belt, was much tougher--very strong in the standup part. I got a bruise below my left eye that I didn't notice until someone pointed out afterward, but I'm sure it was from his head.

But I did pull him into my guard, and got him in a chicken wing. He fought it pretty well, but finally had to tap out. I felt terrific.

We stood up, went at it again. He started to grab my leg, and I pulled him into the guard again. I think what happened (amazing how much you can forget) is that I swept him, got him in a mount, and when he turned to his side to protect his arm, I went for an arm bar.

Unfortunately, I gave him enough room to slip out of it and go for an arm bar against me, which he got. I tapped quickly once he got it in tight--I had no interest in dropping out because my arm was broken.

Once more, standing up, he was more wary about me, but I pulled him into the guard again, and got him in a kimura lock again (which can lead to the chicken wing). He fought it well, and we ran out of time.

I was elated to hear that I (and everyone who had made it that far) got our belts. There were a few people from my local school there who congratulated me. I called my wife and daughter (my wife was too traumatized from seeing me hurt the last time to attend this one, though she provided ample moral support).

I was far from perfect. Sempai Chance, who had given me a lesson Friday, said I was trying to sit straight up from my guard to do the sweep, rather than turning to my side first. I lost putting my second opponent into an arm bar because I gave him room to get out.

I have so much left to learn. And that's one definition of a black belt--a serious martial arts student.

But I attacked and defended well enough to show that I knew what I was doing well enough to pass.


I'm grateful to all the people (including readers of this blog) who encouraged me on the way. I am grateful to my sensei; at the end of the day, I asked him to honor me by putting my belt on for the first time, which he was happy to do.

It's been a long road since that awful moment when my ACL ripped on the grappling mat. I wouldn't say that the black belt or ACL recovery are the most difficult things I've ever done, tough as they are. Trying to be a good father and husband in this imperfect and disruptive world is harder and far more important. But it's encouraging and thrilling to be able to say that, just days short of my 53rd birthday, having recovered from ACL surgery two years earlier, I got my black belt.

12 comments:

still waiting said...

Congratulations Sempai!!!! What an awesome demonstration of non-quitting spirit. I know you will wear that belt proudly as it is a well-deserved honor! You are an inspiration to the rest of us who are trying to get back on our feet after an injury! What a wonderful accomplishment - I am so happy for you!

Michele said...

Way to go! Congratulations! You are an inspiration to us all.

Gwendolyn Bounds said...

Hey Bob -- you're my hero today. Congratulations on this... I think back to when you first started and all the emails you sent about your trip into this strange new world. In some ways, you've completed your narrative arc. Your family must be proud as are your friends.

Pete said...

Congratulations! It is great to hear about that. Your testing process sounds pretty rigorous. I've known plenty of people who would have quit after suffering that severe a setback, so it is great to see you persevere.

Oldman said...

Bob,
Way to go! Congratulations on your success.You talked about wanting to be a good dad and husband. I don't know you but I can say a feww things I can see that you are teaching your kids.

!. Don't give up.
And the cool part is that it did not come in the form of a lecture but an example.
2.Parents are people too. If they have kids on day they can see that it is important for moms and dads to have activities they enjoy.
3. Take care of yourself. Keep yourself healthy. Workout. Find an activity you enjoy and do it.
4. Be a lifelong learner.

Just a few of the lessons you are teaching by being a student.

Anonymous said...

Congrats on this - good stuff

Anonymous said...

Osu Sempai!!Congratulations from a middle aged future tiger schulmann black belt!!! i train at the bay ridge brooklyn school and have been following your blog for a few months now.i am so inspired by your perserverance and success!how nervous were you on a scale of 1-10?
come train with us anytime!!

BobSpar said...

Thanks, everybody--it's great to be able to share my happiness with you!

Here's to the continuing journey.

Hack Shaft said...

Way to go, Sempai Bob!

Yours was the first blog I found when I tore my first ACL, and I'm so proud of how far you've come.

Congratulations, and good luck on your continuing journey.

Perpetual Beginner said...

Congratulations! You've put so much work into recovering from your ACL injury, and then preparing for this test - it's great to see it all come to fruition.

Blackbeltmama said...

I can not BELIEVE I missed this! I've been a little absorbed in my own training lately. A belated congratulations to you. I read this with tears in my eyes. Score one more black belt for the ACL crew. You must be so proud and I'm proud of YOU!

BobSpar said...

Thanks, PB.

Hack and BBM, your support means a lot to me. This definitely was one for the ACL crowd. I'm so looking forward to when you both get your black belts as well!