Meet Brian Freeman AKA Wheelchairjitsu
When Brian Freeman went to undergo surgery for a long standing back problem after being involved in a car crash while on active duty with the US Navy. Little did he know that when he awoke, his life would never be the same again.
I had actually herniated a disc and it had hardened over time and was pressing in on my spinal cord. So I had to have surgery to have the pressure released from my cord and I woke up from surgery paralysed. The surgeons didn’t do anything wrong, there was nothing done wrong, it was just kind of a freak thing. Part of my spinal cord lost blood supply.
I recovered a lot, but when I was first paralysed for several months I couldn’t use either of my legs at all. I had no core muscles, I had a brace so I could sit up without falling over. But over time I’ve regained some use in my right leg. But I’m still pretty severely disabled I guess, but I think I function pretty high level for what I have. I probably only have 25% the strength in my right leg, compared to what a normal let would be and it won’t be getting stronger.
When I was going through physiotherapy, the doctor told me I would continue to get stronger. But there would come a certain point, because of my neurological injury, I wouldn’t get any stronger and I’m pretty sure I’ve reached that peak. Cause for the last several months it really has kinda hit a plateau, where it doesn’t get any stronger.
But I think the thing that makes me able to overcome things is, I’m good at figuring out how to use what I do have. My left leg is totally paralysed but I’m able to use it. I can actually stand upon it, but not for very long. I have a lot of muscle spasms and I’ve learned to actually trigger me whenever I want. To support myself briefly like if I want to get a cup out of a cabinet and things like that.
What was life like before the injury?
I loved being outdoors, I did a lot of hiking, a lot of camping. I did a lot of physical activity, active in the gym. Not training or anything like that, but yeah I really liked the outdoors. There’s a lot of hiking trails, but I did a lot more endurance like running on the trails. There’s a place in the National forest here, close to my house that they have obstacle courses set up, things like that out in the woods that I would go do. My main focus has always been, being active and leading an active lifestyle. I don’t like sitting around too much.
You obviously miss that side of things, so for you, Jiu-Jitsu has been your outlet?
It has, it really has. It’s a sport that I’ve been interested in for a long time, but I kinda live in a rural area. So there was nowhere to train for a long time. And I was married and I had a daughter. I’m divorced now, my daughter is with me most of the time still. But yeah it is an outlet for me, but I don’t miss that life. But I wish sometimes that I could just take a good sprint, I really miss the feeling of running. Walking everywhere is kinda overrated, Lol. But I would like to jump up and sprint sometimes.
Do you sometimes ever wake up in the morning and forget, that not everything is operational?
That’s an interesting question…You know, I think sometimes I do and I think the reason is my left side I don’t have a lot of proprioception. If I don’t see my leg, I really forget where it is. I don’t know if my feet on the floor, across… under me you know, I have no idea where my limb is. Sometimes, even after seven years, I’m not used to that part. So I’ll start to move or get up to transfer into my wheelchair or something like that and forget I don’t know where my left leg is and sometimes it’s kinda funny.
But for the most part, I’m not comfortable ever, my sensations are altered, I have no pain sensations, no temperature. I could put my foot in the water and not know if it’s hot or cold, I have no clue of that. And then my left side is almost hypersensitive to pain and temperature and things like that. But actually touching it with my hands and thing, I don’t really feel it that much.
My core has almost this constant burn, it’s like a dull burn. But I’m so used to it I don’t really think about it. Then the left side of my core is almost numb. It’s not a lack of sensation like in my left leg, but it’s almost numb. So I have all this stuff going on constantly that reminds me, hey you’re not normal.
It was your daughter who said to you, dad I think you should start doing Jiu-Jitsu and she is a practitioner herself?
That’s right she is and like I say, I’ve been watching this sport for a long time and I had a good idea in my head of submissions I like to see guys pull off and things like that. So when she started trying Jiu-Jitsu, she wanted to try it out and see what it was like. She had been in karate for a while, but I had taught her a rear-naked choke and a couple of other things before she started the class, so she kinda had an idea.
And she just fell in love with it, immediately. It’s a really good team environment for the kids and they make it fun for the kids. She’s kinda a natural fighter and she really enjoys it and so as she progressed in class I helped her at home. I can obviously get on the floor and roll around and do things like that.
So she came up with the idea that I should start training too. I was like “Sweety, there’s a big difference between me being on the floor here with you. Versus being on the mat with a grown man trying to choke me out”. You know, she just gave me reason after reason that I could do it and next thing you know, I went to her coach at the time. Told him I want to be active, come to the gym and train something, whatever he thought was best and he was like sure.
He talked to me about what deficits I had, put together a syllabus to start training. Started in private and finally graduated to normal classes. All because my daughter saw something in me, she saw my passion for it, she saw my love for it. And she saw it also as an opportunity; she and I could do together and share together. We don’t train in the same classes, but we have that bond.
Can you tell me about your club, who is your trainer etc?
I train at the martial arts academy of southern pines. I train with team ROC, it’s the Reality Of Combat and they’re mostly out of Fort Bragg North Carolina. A lot of army combative, a lot of those guys are in the army, they train for real life. My coach is Roy Marsh and he’s a blackbelt under Royce Gracie and we are also under team Royce.
Team ROC, we compete under team Royce Gracie. But Roy is amazing, he’s able to take my disability and understand what would work in my situation and what wouldn’t work. There’s been a very little trial and error. He basically just checks things through before he shows me the technique or whatever, because everything has been really effective.
Not one thing has been frustrating yet. He’s been able to really bring me into it, in a way that I wasn’t running into obstacles saying, well you know I couldn’t do that day and I couldn’t do that. Every day I’ve been able to do everything and I really feel it’s because of my coach, he’s awesome. And then my teammates, every person I train with is really supportive and it’s not just me.
Being Supportive Of One Another
I see em equally supportive of each other. But they are really patient, take their time, help me out. They’ll ask me, you know. Which leg is it, can you do this? You can’t do that, let me think about it. They’re really helpful and really interested, helping me learn and helping me get better. It’s just an awesome school, awesome environment. I feel like I’ve been almost put here for a reason because everything is so awesome.
There are things in Jiu-Jitsu I’ve become addicted to I can’t even explain. The whole environment, the whole learning process, it’s just great. But one of the things that attract me to it, is I see so many old people in their seventies and eighties who are still on the mat training Jiu-Jitsu.
And the way we train is relaxed, keep it playful, tap early. Don’t knock five years off of your training because of a stupid injury for not tapping. And you know I see these people that are old. Helio Gracie, he was on the mat until he was 95, ten days before he died. It’s definitely art you can train in as long as you’re alive.
What is your proudest moment since beginning Jiu-Jitsu?
I think my first class with normal people, that wasn’t a private lesson to help me adjust and compensate or a specific technique in my situation. I think that was probably my proudest moment. I think that I had worked hard enough and learned enough and I had progressed enough, that I was scooting across the mat because I can’t walk. I was getting ready to train and spar with normal people and it really made me feel like I had come a long way and I had worked hard. And my goal was to get to that point and start before my fortieth birthday and I was able to do it, two days before my fortieth birthday.
Who are your favourite fighters and who inspires you the most?
Royce Gracie for sure inspires me more than anyone. He’s the reason I fell in love with the sport. I had just graduated high school and that’s when UFC 1 came out and I had heard about it. And I didn’t believe that there was some guy who won basically without punching or anything.
You know, I think if I had watched it and there just were some guys knocking each other out, it would have been kinda forgettable, you know. Because you see boxing, you see people get knocked out, kickboxing, things like that. But to have a guy come in, do something totally different. Take people down and choke them out. It was crazy and I was instantly in love with it. So he’s always had that spot for me.
But modern-day, BJ Penn. I kinda view BJ Penn as the same spirit as when Royce came in and he was 170lbs and he took anybody on and BJ’s kinda always been that way. You know, he fought Machida at heavyweight and he’s just had that warrior spirit and I’m just inspired by that. Anybody, any place, any time, I’ll test my art against you.
But I’ve met, Chael Sonnen who’s been really good to me. I befriended him a couple of years ago and I was able to see and hang out with him at UFC 168 in December. Gilbert Melendez, I ran into him, it was awesome. I didn’t know he was walking in front of me, going into the MGM and he opened the door for me and held it. And as I was going through the door I glanced over and I was like, holy shit there’s Gilbert Melendez holding the door for me. So I got a picture with him and talked to him.
Getting Support For My Training
Cowboy Cerrone! I get a lot of support from Renzo Gracie on Twitter and Instagram. He sends me a lot of messages and things like that, motivation, you know. When Renzo’s looking to you for inspiration it kinda drives you on a bit, that’s a legend in the sport. Ricardo Almeda, quite a few people have really, especially in the Jiu-Jitsu community, has shown me a lot of support.
And I think everything about MMA, the whole community, is that everybody is so humble. The fighters I met at 168, were like just humble guys. It probably comes from, there’s no reason to be cocky. You might be the UFC champ, but I’m sure that you get smashed in the gym every day by other guys and it kinda keeps you humble. That’s another thing that really draws me to the sport is how everybody is so cool, humble and nice. I’m sure they have their personas on tv, whatever to sell their names, sell their fights, promote themselves. Seems like behind the scenes everybody’s pretty cool.
And who is your daughter’s favourite fighter?
LOL, Ronda Rousey, that was the reason we went to UFC 168. It was January of last year and my daughter said “If I compete for a lot this year and I try really hard and do really well. Will you take me to see Ronda compete”? I was like wow, that’s kinda a tall order. But really over the year it just kinda worked out that I was able to put that trip together for me and her. And she did really well, she competed in ten different tournaments, four karate, three Taekwondo, Jiu-Jitsu. I can’t remember now but there were ten tournaments. But she did really well, she placed first or second in almost everything. I think her lowest place was like a fourth place.
In sparring in karate in her very first tournament, she won two national championships in Taekwondo in Daytona beach Florida. She really earned the trip, but it was nice for me too. She screamed for the Ronda fight the entire time.
What are your future plans in Jiu-Jitsu?
I think my main goal is to always stay in a position where I can train, to not over train. If I do get an injury, make sure I do whatever I can to train forever. Other goals, I definitely want to work through the belts, I think it would be cool. My coach doesn’t know of anyone who has started Jiu-Jitsu from a wheelchair and gone all the way and made it to blackbelt. But he said maybe I should have to be the first. But you know it’s not something I think about, I like my white belt. I like the fact that I’m just wearing a belt you know, that I can wear one and be out there doing that. Yeah but definitely go through the belts.
I’d like to compete, maybe later this year in a submission-only tournament. No time limits or anything like that, because part of my game is survival. Really taking my time and picking my opportunities, but those are some things. I guess my long terms goals are to train as long as I can and my short term goal is to compete, sometime this year. Test myself against somebody else who I haven’t trained with who isn’t aware of my situation and go 100% and see how I do. Win or lose the victory to me is being on the mat.
What kind of message do you have for people who find themselves in a similar situation and who want to strive for something better?
My biggest piece of advice is if there’s something you want to do try it. Even if you think you can’t, almost everything has a piece of it you can do. You may not get the full effect of whatever it is you want to try but try it. I’ve been surprised every day in Jiu-Jitsu at what I didn’t think I could do. I would just say whatever it is you want to do, try it. You don’t know how to do it, find somebody else who does it and start asking questions. Who do I talk to and just go for it really.
There’s no use sitting around wishing you could do something. To me it’s better to say, “you know I tried that and I just couldn’t do it”. Rather than sitting around and wondering, what if? I wish I had tried that, that’s what I would say. Whatever you wish you could do, that you think you can’t. Just go try it, the worst that’s gonna happen is your not gonna be able to do it. But at least you tried and I have to say Jiu-Jitsu is for everyone, I’m a believer in that.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Wheelchairjitsu