My name is Romeo Barnes, I was given the opportunity to write this article by Dr. Jon Gelber. Let me start with a little background on myself and how I got into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and grappling.
I was born August 5, 1986 with cerebral palsy, a catch-all term for any brain damage in the cerebellum affecting gross and fine motor skills depending on its severity. I grew up on Bruce Lee and Karate Kid movies, so as you can imagine I’ve always loved martial arts, but they were largely unavailable in my area and impractical to due to my condition.
By the time I was eight I’d been through so many lower-body surgeries that the Asian arts as they are traditionally taught were out of the question even if they were to become available to me. I remember watching Royce Gracie triangle choke Dan Severn on the scrambler in my mom’s room and saying to myself, “I want to do that.” However, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was also unavailable at the time and as a result I had to find something else to do.
I joined my school’s Special Olympic track team and dedicated myself to it completely. I raced until my sophomore year in high school. It was recommended by my coach that I pursue the Paralympics if I wanted to keep competing, but I began developing scoliosis a few years prior due to constant use of my wheelchair both as a mobility device and training tool, so racing was becoming difficult and I didn’t want to commit myself, knowing I couldn’t perform at the level necessary to be successful.
Fast forward to August 2005, going into my senior year of high school, and I’d spent two summers bored on the couch. I spent hours online that summer just searching for something to do. Just days after my eighteenth birthday I arrived at Lloyd Irvin Martial Arts Academy for my intro class.
After that short class I was immediately hooked. I trained every chance I got, five days out of the week the majority of time. I even trained the day of my graduation. I got home from the ceremony, changed into my Gi and went to class. I trained with Lloyd until February 2006, until a dispute between us forced me to leave.
I spent the next year or so looking for a new team. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was only thing I ever experienced that was primal, artistic, athletic, and scientific all at the same time. It simply fed all my needs and still does to this day. During this time, I began obsessing over every YouTube and instructional video I could get my hands on. I watched everything, but tournament footage was my favorite to watch.
After watching YouTube videos posted by one of his students, I found myself at Maguilla’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy on November 8, 2008 still holding the rank of white belt and began training under Roberto Marques Da Silva who we affectionately call “Maguilla”. In September 2010 as a purple belt, I went in for a routine surgery I’d been through twice before, a baclofen pump replacement. The surgery resulted in multiple infections and two subsequent surgeries, which kept me off the mat until February 2011. Later that year on December 7, 2011 Maguilla promoted me to the rank of black belt.
In those three years, I competed up and down the East Coast, had three surgeries, went from white to black belt with Maguilla, and evolved as a person. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has not only made me more functional physically and mentally, but it has also taught me two very valuable life lessons. The first, as an athlete with a disability, you have to work twice as hard to be just as good as your able-bodied adversaries. The second being, strength is much more than the power in your arms and legs. Both are true not just in athletics, but in life. Hard work pays off, but hard work goes to waste without perseverance.
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