Recently I had the chance to catch up with Anthoney, a blue belt from Perth, Western Australia, who has not only recovered from spinal surgery, but took up BJJ to aid in his recovery. We had a chat about his story below.
Jiu-Jitsu Times: Thanks for taking the time to catch up with Jiu-Jitsu Times. Tell us a bit about yourself;
Anthoney Hey all, I’m Anthoney. I’m 24 years old and I’ve been training Brazilian jiu-jitsu for just over two and a half years. I’ve been a fan of martial arts since the first time I saw a Jackie Chan movie! I trained karate for a while as kid but grew out of that. When I was a teenager I tried jiu-jitsu and ended up training regularly in a friend’s shed because the closest gym was about 300 kilometers away. I had spinal surgery in October 2010 and I moved from the country to the city a few years later, where I eventually gathered the courage to jump back into jiu-jitsu. I’ve been training ever since.
JJT: Can you tell us bit about your condition and what was involved with the post-surgery recovery?
Anthoney: I have scoliosis; a condition where my spine curves sideways as I grow. Scoliosis affects around 3% of people worldwide, but in most instances it just causes mild discomfort and can be treated with physiotherapy or exercise. My scoliosis was pretty extreme, with a 54 degree curve before my surgery. If left untreated it would have affected my posture and breathing, while causing significant pain and in some instances, moving or crushing organs. The spinal fusion was recommended to stop the curving in its tracks.
The curve was noticed when I was 15 and the surgery took place a few years later, shortly after my 18th birthday. The surgery involved straightening my spine and holding it in place with titanium rods, tech screws, and clamps. Almost my entire spine was fused, leaving me unable to bend or twist my spine. The recovery took about year all up, although the first six months were by far the hardest. I spent the first few months in bed and an orthopedic chair, only really moving to go to the bathroom or attempt small walks. It was a really trying time and it taught me a lot about patience.
Six years ago today I had my spine fused. It was a rough year recovering and then a few years of being afraid of any…
JJT: With any injury or condition such as yours, training would be hard. Have you found any physical or mental issues since your surgery?
Anthoney: As a general rule I try not to complain too much, because no one wants to hear that! That said, training can be very difficult for me depending on what we’re doing class-to-class. The majority of the time the movements or techniques we’re learning are easy to figure out, but occasionally we come across something that’s extremely hard for me to do.
I have definitely had a harder time mentally and there’s always a part of me that’s worried about injury, and the risk of injury. I was told when I had my surgery that if I damaged the hardware in my back significantly, the surgeon would just take it out. I was told at that stage there’s a chance I could lose the ability to walk. This has made me a pretty relaxed grappler, especially when it comes to rolling with someone I don’t know well. If you see me rolling hard and fast, it’s likely that coaches have an eye out, or that I’m rolling with someone I know very well.
JJT: Did you find that your condition meant that you had to change the way you trained? Are there any techniques you can’t do or have to do differently?
Anthoney With a fused spine, there are some movements that I simply cannot do. Luckily, most of these are warm-up movements (stupid forward rolls). Anything that requires twisting of the shoulders or spine is extremely hard for me to figure out. Usually I’ll end up trying to find another angle I can try the technique from, or a slightly different variation which allows me to try it form a position more suitable for my range of movement.
I’ve definitely found a style of training that allows me to take care of myself. There are a few positions that worry me so I work my best to avoid them and tap early if I get into one of these bad positions. I guess the biggest thing that’s different in the way I train is that I always have to make it clear with new training partners that there’s some things I can’t do, and some situations where I might just tap out for seemingly no reason. Thus far though, every situation where I’ve had trouble I’ve always had an incredible coach or training partner to help me find alternatives.
JJT: With having your spine fused I would imagine you were in a lot of pain? Did find anything that helped ease the pain other than pain killers?
Anthoney: Unfortunately I’ve had to become resigned to a certain level of pain that I experience every day. Off the top of my head, I’d suggest routine stretching and walking or swimming as these helped me a lot after my surgery. Hot showers were also a blessing on my aching muscles. Due to my spine literally being moved, my muscles spent a lot of time and energy trying to push my spine back, so the majority of the issues I faced (and still face) are musculoskeletal.
A strange thing I found that I began to do was sit in extremely strange positions. Being unable to bend or twist makes it very hard to get comfortable so I constantly fidget when sitting down. If you see me sitting still for any length of time, it’s usually in a very strange position, with an arm draped over my own head or something silly. I also sleep with two pillows minimum so I can prop up my arms or put one between my legs to avoid strain on my shoulders and arms.
JJT: What is it about martial arts that got you to come back?
Anthoney: As I said earlier, I’ve always loved martial arts. When I was a kid, it always seemed like such a noble thing to do. To be able to protect yourself and the things important to you is something I think is very important. As I got older and learned more about violence and self-defense, Brazilian jiu-jitsu started to appeal to me more and more. I believe that Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the best self-defense art, hands down. Some people will argue that other arts like Krav Maga are better for defense, but I love jiu-jitsu because you can defend yourself without seriously hurting your opponent, whereas arts like Krav Maga focus more on hurting your opponent. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I want to be able to take care of myself and those dear to me.
I initially came back to Brazilian jiu-jitsu because it was the hardest thing I could think of possibly doing. I spent the first few years after my surgery incredibly afraid of hurting myself. This mindset was eating me up and I wanted to break the cycle of these scared thoughts. I figured if I could do Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I could do anything. I went into that first gym genuinely wondering if this was something I’d be able to do or if it would prove too hard physically. I was so worried about how it was going to go and the first class really scared me. I actually didn’t come back to a gym again until a year after that and it was only then that I managed to stick to it.
JJT: I hear you also have a blog? Can you tell us a bit about that?
Anthoney: Yeah, that’s right. I started my blog, Tap Early, Tap Often, just before I started training at The Arena MMA a few years back. I wanted to be able to have something to look back on to judge how I would change, if at all, due to training. I also wanted to put something out there to let other people know that despite your physical condition, there’s always something you can do. If there’s one thing I want to achieve, it’s for someone to see me doing this and to think that they might be able to give it a go. I think jiu-jitsu is something that everyone should try.
The blog itself covers a lot. Initially it would say things like, “We trained Kimuras tonight”, or “Man, I’m tired”, but there’s a change that’s occurred somewhere along the line. The blog is now more about progression and change and how jiu-jitsu makes me feel. I also occasionally upload some cool photos or other media to the blog as well. There’s a gallery on there with some photos I’ve taken in the gym and a gallery dedicated to photos of my surgery and recovery for anyone interested. I don’t post extremely frequently, because I don’t want to put out content that’s got no substance. With that in mind, I try to post only when I’ve got something I think is interesting to talk about.
JJT: What advice would you give someone with a physical condition such as yours in regards to returning to training?
Anthoney: If you’ve not trained before, find a good gym and give it a go. Good instructors and training partners will try their best to give you alternative options to compensate for your injuries or conditions. If you’re returning to training or starting out, I’d also suggest taking it slow. Test your limits very slowly and steadily. Always ensure that you’ve let your partners and coaches know about your injuries/conditions so they can adjust accordingly. There’s no use being a tough guy and staying silent if it means you end up in a wheelchair.
JJT: Anthoney thank you so much for your time and we wish you all the best in the future. Any final words for the readers?
Anthoney: Keep training and keep giving your best. Training martial arts will make you a better person in many ways. It will improve your fitness, teach you to defend yourself, and make you a stronger person, mentally. When you’re training, take care of yourself and everyone around you. Those people put their health in your hands and that requires a lot of trust. Other than that, just take care of yourself. Stay safe friends.
I’d also like to say thanks to you, Luke, for reaching out to me to ask about my story. You can find more about me on the blog and my Facebook page. Thanks to the guys at Free Rollers Australia. These guys work insanely hard and continue to do great things.