If you venture out to Durango, Colorado, you’ll find gorgeous scenery, friendly people, and the perfect environment for outdoor adventurers. You’ll also find Durango Martial Arts Academy, where Nick Maez spends his time coaching dedicated students of all ages and experience levels. With fifteen years of training under his black belt (which he earned from Steve Hordinski), Maez is one of those people you can’t help but be inspired by. His achievements, which include getting bronze at the 2015 IBJJF Pan Ams, have been earned with a combination of both impressive talent and incredible dedication. His main focus, though, is helping others. Maez is a clinical therapist who helps people work through everything from marital problems to severe PTSD. Once he leaves work, he heads to the gym to help his jiu jitsu students achieve their goals, whatever they may be.
Shortly before kicking my butt on the mat (in an educational way, of course), Nick sat down and talked with me about what’s made his jiu jitsu program so successful and what’s really important in this sport. Hint: it’s not about the shiny medals.
Jiu Jitsu Times: Tell us about your jiu jitsu journey. How did you get to where you are now?
Nick Maez: I started off wrestling when I was super young and did that all throughout school. When I was in college, I found a no-gi program. Later on I moved to Durango, Colorado and began training in a gi with [Durango Martial Arts Acadamy owner] Chris Jones and just fell in love with the lifestyle and the camaraderie. I like waking up early, going running, eating healthy. It’s not just the training that I enjoy; it’s everything else that comes with it.
JJT: Your gym stands out because it has a lot of women who train. What do you believe has been the key to having such a strong female membership?
NM: We’ve created a very safe and welcoming environment there. It’s very family oriented; we have kids’ classes, but we also have women and men in their fifties and sixties that come in and train hard. Our professors allow a lot of openness, too. We want our students to give us feedback. We ask them for it, for what they like and what they think we can improve on. It’s all about the community there, and I think a lot of women really appreciate that. I mean, obviously as an instructor, you want to have the best guys who can go out and win competitions, but we want everyone to come in and train regardless of what their goals are. I think we manage to strike a really good balance with that, making sure everyone feels welcome, making sure everyone knows that they’re a priority. Some people are in it for self defense, some just want to be healthier, some want to compete, some just want to do it for fun. We give everyone the same amount of attention regardless of what they want out of it; we’re just happy they’re training.
JJT: You trained in Hawaii for about two years, which sounds like a dream come true. What’s the jiu jitsu culture like there?
NM: There’s actually a lot of jiu jitsu there. It’s a very tight BJJ community, but there’s also a lot of competition between academies because you can’t go a mile without finding a jiu jitsu gym. I trained with Jason Izaguirre and met lots of really cool people there. The whole atmosphere is just very relaxed and open. It’s great.
JJT: You’re also a clinical therapist. What are the tricks to balancing such an involved career with training, coaching, and competing?
NM: It starts with the right frame of mind, you know? You can’t just train like a champion; you have to live like a champion. I invest in that mindset with everything I do. I wake up and run at 6 a.m., go to work, then go training and don’t finish until 9 pm. No one got good sitting on the couch. But yeah, sometimes you have to make sacrifices. You gotta wake up earlier, go to bed later, maybe leave work an hour early if you can. If you keep finding excuses for yourself, you’re never going to get where you want to be, not just in jiu jitsu, but in life.
JJT: So many people in jiu jitsu have said how it’s like therapy for them. As an expert in the mental health field, how do you think jiu jitsu benefits the brain?
NM: A lot of mental illnesses can really take you out of the present. I work with a lot of patients who have PTSD, and it’s almost like their mind and body get disconnected. I think jiu jitsu helps reconnect a lot of that stuff because your mind and your body have to work together if you’re fighting off a submission or trying to submit someone else. It takes you back to the present; you’re not worrying about the past or the future or whatever, you’re thinking about what you’re doing right now. You have to. Plus, you get a lot of people who are going through a rough time, maybe dealing with losing a loved one. And in jiu jitsu, you always have people there who are supporting you and who are there for you no matter what. So the social aspect is also a huge part of [improving and maintaining your mental health] too.
JJT: What’s been the greatest highlight in your BJJ career? Is there a particular victory in a competition that you’re especially proud of?
NM: For me, it’s not really about the competition. It’s more about the community and the connectivity that comes with training with other people. It’s really rewarding to meet people from all walks of life and getting to work with them. I wouldn’t say there’s a specific moment that sticks out to me, but every time you help a student overcome something, or they reach a personal goal, that’s what I love most.
JJT: What were some of the toughest challenges to overcome on the road to getting your black belt?
NM: Jiu jitsu itself is a tough journey. You’re always battling injuries, but it’s not just about the physical effects. It’s the mental stuff, too: your emotional state goes from high to low, you have to balance training with your personal life, you have to force yourself to be able to get back up even when you’re facing constant defeat. I really had to learn how to view defeat differently and turn it into motivation. It’s tough to get back up again and again and again, but if you want to get good, you need to come back and overcome those negative feelings.
JJT: You place a lot of importance on your students. What has been your most rewarding experience as an instructor?
NM: Like I said before, everyone comes in with a different goal in mind. So for me, yeah, it’s cool when a kid uses a technique you just taught him to submit someone, but it’s not about the technique; it’s about helping people with their personal growth, helping them better themselves both inside and outside the gym. And the cool thing about jiu jitsu— and something people might forget — is that it’s not just about you and your journey. At my gym, we support everyone’s goals no matter what they are, and we encourage our students to support everyone else’s goals, too. You don’t have to train every day, you just have to share the journey and bring your whole self to the mat. I still learn a lot about jiu jitsu and life in general from blue belts, purple belts, and white belts. If you give as much as you get, you’re going to get a lot more out of your time there.
JJT: For anyone wanting to come out and train with you in Durango, what are some things to do aside from jiu jitsu?
NM: Oh man, there’s a ton to do out there. Skiing, white water rafting, hiking… it’s a mecca for outdoor sports. There’s also the Narrow Gauge Railroad, which lets you see a lot of the beauty of Colorado. The people there are great. There’s lots of community events, and the nightlife is a lot of fun.
Whether you live near Durango or just want to visit, make sure you take some time to learn under Maez and the other great coaches at Durango Martial Arts Academy while enjoying the best of what Colorado has to offer.