Jiu-Jitsu, a team sport

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By Hillary Williams

Competition is just you versus them.  However, name one Jiu-Jitsu superstar that got where they are without a team.  My dictionary says a team is “two or more people working together toward a common goal.” It’s that simple.

Most of us think that a sports team is limited strictly to the group of players and the coaches. I realize now there are people on my team who have never stepped foot on the mat.

On January 29th, 2010, I was scheduled to fly from my home in Little Rock, Arkansas, to Miami, Florida, for the World Pro BJJ Trials, to start my first full year at brown/black belt competition. That day the entire mid-south was hit by a severe ice storm, with over 100,000 people losing power, multiple deaths, and President Obama signing a disaster declaration.  Okay, so those last three parts were an exaggeration–but it was several inches of ice and no traction.

With my bags packed, ready for my dad to take me to the airport, I watched online as flight after flight was cancelled, steadily losing hope, until finally mine was knocked out at well. I searched frantically for options. Dallas, Texas, was spared from the winter madness.  A single bus route looked promising.  Somehow, it would take an extra 12 hours, hundreds of miles out of my way, but I would arrive in time for weigh-ins.

I live on top of a mountain that, for whatever pointless reason, is only approachable by a steep, two-mile, one-lane road. Getting down it in the ice without sliding off the mountain was a 45-minute endeavor. The trip to the bus station too was treacherous, and upon arrival, all routes had been cancelled. The train to Dallas had left the station and wouldn’t come through again for the weekend. Finally we slid to the airport to check for early morning flights. I was initially guaranteed a flight at six AM, only to be told that there was “no chance” of me making it to Florida before Sunday afternoon.

I was starting to break down.

My dad leaned on the airline ticket counter, sighed heavily, and said, “Well, we’re driving to Dallas then.”  I looked at him in disbelief. “Dad, you’re gonna hate me for this.” “Oh, I already do.  Just now I’m going to let you know about it” he explained. And we were off.

Assuming there is no traffic and you’re maintaining a steady 70 miles per hour, Little Rock to Dallas takes around five hours. When you’re skiing a slalom of S’s across an ice-covered freeway at a max of 35 miles per hour, it takes all night.

As I sat in the passenger seat watching my dad sip bottom-of-the-pot gas station coffee to stay awake, I realized that he’s my oldest and most dedicated teammate. Across 21 years and eight different sports, he’s been my coach, my sponsor, my cheering section, my critic, my personal trainer, and my inspiration.  He taught me how to swing a golf club, throw a softball, and even hit a low single leg.  He taught me that the best remedy for any sports injury is a hefty application of duct tape and icy hot.  He cheered for me when I deserved it and told me to get my act together when I needed to hear it.  He didn’t always reward my accomplishments, but rather treated them as obligations, and pushed me past all predictions of my capability. He gave me the opportunity he never had growing up, and taught me how to create opportunity on my own.

Late into the night we cleared the worst of the weather, and stopped to fill up on gas somewhere in the emptiness of Texas. He asked me if he could eat something, knowing that I had stopped eating and drinking for the final day of my weight cut. I smiled and nodded. Wandering through the aisles past wolf statues and salivating over chocolate bars, I came across a gift card display.  One caught my eye. It read “Anyone can be a father.  It takes a special person to be a dad.”

After sleeping in an airport lobby wrapped in my kimono top, I made my flight, made weight, and won three matches to bring home the gold.   I walked off the mat after my final match, grabbed my cell phone, and I could hear the smile on my dad’s face.  It was all worth it.

Dad, I’ll keep the plane ticket to Abu Dhabi, but the medal is yours.

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