Re-stoking the Fire: A Story of BJJ Burnout and an Unexpected Journey to Fuel the Fire Again- Part 2

Part 2

Continued from Part 1

“Would you be interested in coming to Mexico to work together in person?”

Margot, true to her nomadic handle, then-based in Reunion, a French island off the African coast, was about to travel to Mexico City next, camping there for two weeks before competing at American Nationals in Dallas. 

I asked a few trusted people for their input on the following matter: whether to take a jiu-jitsu trip to Mexico in under two weeks in the middle of COVID. My mom said it was a little short notice. One friend said, “Whether you do it or don’t do it, I haven’t heard you this fired up about something in a while. Find a way to hold onto that feeling and harness it regardless of what you decide.” My coach said, “Do it. Take copious notes. Save any game-changing revelations until after Masters Worlds (my last planned tournament of the year).” 

In a normal year, I would have found a million reasons to say no. Too expensive. Too hard to manage with work. In 2020, I should have found even more reasons to say no. I had just adopted a dog. I worked in eCommerce and the trip would overlap with Cyber Monday. I was a female traveling alone to Mexico City, which had a bad crime rate in the wrong areas. There was a global pandemic going on. 

It ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made for my jiu-jitsu—since walking into a gym to begin with. It might end up being one of the best decisions of my life. 

For the next eight days, I found myself on an adventure. I walked daily through the lush greenery of Parque Mexico, ooh-ing and aww-ing over the many dogs in the park. I practiced my Spanish over orders of chilaquiles and enjoyed caffe lattes from many charming cafes in Condesa. I tried every flavor of Mexican electrolyte beverage available at the nearest OXXO corner store (my favorite: mint-blueberry). I called into my family’s Zoom Thanksgiving from a taxi cab en route back into Mexico City from the ruins of Teotihuacan. 

Then, of course, there’s the jiu-jitsu side of the trip. I came to Mexico City burnt out, questioning my future with jiu-jitsu, and feeling stuck in terms of my progress. I left with a whole new lens on how to train.

I trained in three different facilities with welcoming partners, relishing the opportunity to roll with a variety of partners (this was still restricted under my home gym’s covid protocols). But I probably could have done that well within the United States on a trip to a place like Florida or Texas. It was the experience of working with Margot that set the rest of the trip apart.  

If there was one impression I had from the first roll, it was how she seemed to dance through it. There was swagger in every step, playfulness and spirited intention in every movement, a precise, beautiful flourish in every point of contact and pressure. She described herself as a martial artist in the first blog post I’d ever read of hers, and she truly put the “artist” in martial artist as she rolled: sweeping her limbs across the mat like brush strokes on a canvas, testing and molding her opponents like clay into whatever shape to her heart’s content and toward an eventual finish. I felt like she was chiseling at me like a block of stone—seeing the shape of some great sculpture inside of it, waiting to be uncovered. She helped me see the potential I could reach, making first chips away at the stone before handing the tools over to me to chip away for myself. 

She gave me the tools to see that potential for myself and chip away for myself. We exchanged feedback after rolls—sharing how we felt it went, what we thought about while rolling, what we were hoping to accomplish relative to the other person. I hadn’t ever been forced to be quite so thoughtful and present before when rolling. After the initial cringes of filming my rolls and watching myself back on camera, I appreciated her insistence of recording and reviewing my tape. I’d spent many days of my jiu-jitsu training just showing up to class and going through the motions day after day. I’d never given much thought to watching things back aside from competition matches. But the more I recorded myself and analyzed my movements, attempted strategies, many blunders, and sometimes-successes in daily training, the greater awareness I cultivated about the things that needed work. By the end of the trip, in glimmers on the tape,I could see the hints of the potential she might have seen in this block of stone. 

Outside of the training room, there was plenty to learn from her as well. As someone so rigid and structured, the improvisational levity with which she lived and practiced jiu-jitsu was an uncomfortable and welcoming change for me. It forced me to consider all the ways in which my life in and outside of jiu-jitsu needed a little less formality and a lot more fun. Were there more places I could dance through life instead of march through it?

There is a lot for which I can thank Margot from that trip to Mexico City. She sized up my game and identified areas of actionable improvement in my competition ‘A game’ that contributed to my eventual success at Masters Worlds. She pushed me toward building an open guard game, something I’d likely have never attempted had I not gone on the trip—one of the many tactical things for which I’ll have to thank her in the long run. I may not have come home with a ‘zen’ berimbolo, or any berimbolo for that matter, but I had come home with an intention of cultivating a more assertive and insistent mindset. I hadn’t realized just how much I’d been holding myself back without it. 

The biggest things that I learned from Margot were what could be possible for me in my life outside of jiu-jitsu. By the time I came home from Mexico City and competed in my final tournaments of the year, I began to reflect on what I wanted next. The conclusion I came to was I wanted to live like an artist, too—at least for a little while. I wanted to travel. I wanted to compete—and succeed—at the highest levels in jiu-jitsu. I wanted to write a book about it all—and I didn’t want to wait another decade to do it. 

As I write this, I’m packing up my life of almost-nine years in Boston to embark on my own nomadic adventure through America, through jiu-jitsu, and through myself. Much like the trip to Mexico, this journey is its own leap of faith, but with better jiu-jitsu and a better, more creative, joyful life at the end of it—one that has me burning bright rather than burning out. 

Erica Zendell Blue Belt Pan American Tournament

Written and submitted by Erica Zendell

Erica is a (soon to be wandering) blue belt under John Clarke at Broadway Jiu-Jitsu (Carlson Gracie Boston)

For more blogs and writing from Erica, check out her newsletter featuring other stories from her trip in Mexico City, the rest of her blog, or follow @zenintheartoffighting on Instagram.