Sunday, May 17, 2009
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.