2/24/2012. 2:30am my alarm hits after two hours of sleep, and it was time to start the difficult and arduous journey north to Montreal, Quebec, Canada, if by some chance we did, in fact, make it. The night before I spent hours on the phone with Southwest Airlines, American Express, Greyhound, Continental Airlines, and Fabio Holanda, the tournament director, figuring out how to get north as all flights to and from Chicago had been canceled due to a massive snowstorm sweeping the upper part of the country and lower Canada. There were no direct flights even, and our options were running out, and our chances of competing in the Abu Dhabi Pro Montreal Trials that we had financially invested, mentally and physically prepared and trained so hard for weren't looking good.
I somehow found a 5:25am flight to Newark, NJ and then a connection flight to Manchester, NH, and from there we would take a 6.5hr Greyhound bus to Montreal. If, and that is a big “if” all went well, we could beat the storm to Montreal and make weigh-ins an hour and a half late. “Let me know when you get here” was all the assurance I had from Fabio. So with lots of hope, optimism, and a welcoming of any luck we could get, Charlie Heirsche, my friend and KCBJJ training partner and I started the 1400 mile trek north.
No hiccups yet, just two of the smallest and roughest propeller airplane rides I had ever been on, and we had beat the storm…so far. With the layover in Manchester, we boarded the bus at 2:45pm…a standing room only over-booked bus! For the next two hours I stood in the aisle, and around that same time the storm caught up to us. Each hour that passed the snow got heavier and thicker…as everything, the day and our chances, became increasingly darker. At one point as the bus was lurching at a 30-40mph pace, every time the driver would try to accelerate, it only caused the motor to rev and the back end of the bus to drift sideways, nearly out of control on the frozen highway. I saw a constant slew of emergency vehicles and cars alike, spun off the road in a horrible fashion, some wrecked or even flipped. As the already long journey and feeling of not knowing if we would make it in time weighed on my mind, in a bizarre daze, one that I will remember always, I gazed ahead, then all around me…all I saw was complete darkness amongst silhouettes of tall trees and confining rock formations…looking to the other side, down into a ravine I see a semi-truck overturned. Now the words "anxiety" and "stress" escape me, they are just not words I never really feel a part of, but taking it all in, the severity and loss of control in the situation, in that moment I thought to myself, “I’m going to die out here in the snow, in the middle-of-nowhere Vermont with all these strangers.”
Stopping in Burlington and Montpelier I knew for sure the driver would announce that it was too dangerous to continue, and although we would have our lives saved, our hope of making the Trials would be totally squashed. He didn’t, we forged ahead, and I was doing my best at giving Fabio text updates with our ETA. The end of the trip was dragging as my hips and entire body were feeling the effects of the bus seat, and the nearing 24hrs straight of travel since my alarm hit all those hours ago. We finally reached the edge of Montreal, but I had lost contact with Fabio an hour and half prior. No responses now. It was almost midnight. We hop in a cab as fast as we can, trying to communicate with the driver’s broken English and our non-existent French. Luckily I had all the addresses written on a piece of paper. Running into the hotel we made our way directly to the ballroom where the weigh-ins were held…the door was locked! We pulled on the door handle as if that would somehow help. We tried speaking to the front deskman, pleading with him as if somehow he could help. We ask him to dial us up to Fabio’s room number, no answer, so I leave a message. I also try texting him again…nothing. Options exhausted, we slowly slump down into the lobby chairs behind us, tired and broken from the road, and now, 24 hours later, defeated by it. How could this be? Did this really just happen? My mind was a blur. I knew this was a high probability, coming all this way to have this happen, but now it was no longer probable, it was real.
Just as all these thoughts were beginning to circle through my exhausted head, I got up and walked around, as if just instinctively not giving up. I poked my head over the rail into the restaurant, it was nearing it’s closing hours, but I saw some Brazilians and just desperately started asking each of these complete strangers, “Are you Fabio?” They looked confused and disconcerting, and simply stated that we missed weigh-ins. “No, you don’t understand,” I pleaded. “We just traveled a long way to get here, I’ve been in contact with Fabio tonight, he’s expecting us.” As I was talking I hear Charlie also talking to a woman in the next booth, and it turns out it was Fabio’s wife, and she knew about us, said she would take care of us, get us weighed-in as soon as she was done eating! “Thank-you so much” we both repeated over and over as the desperation and relief had to be evident on our faces and in our voices. Just a mere ten more minutes and we would have missed her, she would have been done eating, up in her hotel room, retired for the night. Unreal. Thank God.
Charlie was cutting a few pounds, both of us starving, we made the weight, registered, and now, half the battle was over! We had made it, somehow, by the grace of God, 4hrs late, 1400mi away from home, we made it! Immediately our moods were elevated, and we noticed our bizarre surroundings and the people, this place they call Montreal. “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
We crashed hard in our hotel, and made our way to the Centre Peirre Charbaneau, part of the Olympic Arena, home of the 2012 Abu Dhabi Pro Montreal Trials. The venue was nice, and everything of course was top-notch, professional. Charlie and I watched some brown and black belts matches, Jared Weiner, Sonny Keola Nohara, etc. before we were up in the early afternoon. I edged my first match out against one of Fabio’s guys, BTT Canada, after getting down on points, coming back to outscore with some mount and knee-on-belly positions nearing the end. I was flat, felt terrible that first match, but that is usual. Number one down, it’s on. Second match I failed a takedown, but eventually came up top and wrapped up a tight guillotine, forcing the quick tap out. In the finals I faced another of Fabio’s guys, Greg. We jockeyed for position standing, until I land some good grips, turned my hips, and Uchi Mata tossed him high overhead, down hard on the mat, right to his back, causing quite a reaction from the spectators. From there, it wasn’t long until I took his back and eventually sunk in a nasty bow-and-arrow style choke for the tap, the win, and the 92kg Championship Title.
A Brazilian approached me, smiling he congratulated me and said he had watched my matches, complimented my style and said that I reminded him of himself when he was a purple belt. He was very impressed, and told me that the Absolute was mine, no one could match me here. A total stranger, someone I had never met was telling me this? I couldn’t believe it. So cool. Other people took notice too, asked Charlie and I where we were from? Who did we train with? They couldn’t believe our answers. “You are from Kansas City?! It took you how long to get here?! Wow you guys are crazy!” Gilmar, the seasoned Brazilian, replied, “It’s going to pay off for you, big time! Trust me. You are going to win, I’m telling you.” To get such compliments and positive encouragement from someone I had never met, who only watched me for a few minutes…gave me such confidence, not only in my abilities, but in the fact that I was doing, in life, exactly what I was meant to. To impact someone so much with only my actions, my fighting style, was a remarkable feeling. Even Fabio, after the 92kg finals, approached me, congratulated me, asking about my judo background. “I’ve never done judo,” I replied. We talked about Suyan Queiro, KCBJJ, and how he and his wife trained with Renato (our Master, affiliate) down in Brasil at BTT. Jiu-jitsu continues to completely amaze me almost daily, in every way. Everyone is connected. What a small world, what an incredible thing I am a part of. What an incredible journey I am living!
It wasn’t long and my 1st round Absolute match was up. It was against a tough Lloyd Irvin Ultra-Heavyweight, one whom I saw win last years Absolute at the Las Vegas Trials. It was to be a tough match I knew, a war. I love fighting bigger opponents, the bigger the better to me, and I have a great win/loss record against them. With Gilmar’s added confidence, and knowing I was representing everyone back home I was ready, always ready. He pulls guard, unusual for a big guy, I immediately threaten passing, he turtles and I am on his back, threatening the choke and the second hook. For almost two minutes this continues, until he regains half guard, no points. He sweeps me, two points, takes my back with a near choke, four points, I fight it off into his closed guard now, I stand to break, swept again, another two points…I’m down big. From open guard I turn, base up and immediately he waist-locks me into a high overhead belly-to-back throw, powerful, right onto my shoulders and the back of my head. Now in my professional wrestling days I happened to take some serious bumps, and although folded up like an accordion upon impact, I was un-phased, rolled through and came up in a scramble with a takedown to guard pass, threatening again to take his back. He does an unbelievable job of keeping my second hook out, no points…I’m down 8-0 and with only 60sec left in the match, I need a submission. Relentless with his lapel, I tighten it further and further around his neck…as he is trying to escape I trap his right arm with my legs…I half-nelson his other arm, eliminating all his defenses now, and increasing the pressure around his throat...short time…I hear him quietly gargling for air…but times running out. His legs stop moving, he goes limp, the ref pulls me off…he’s unconscious, choked out. I win. Amped up, I jump up to my feet. What a fight, what a come-from-behind victory! Never give up!
Such a game opponent, incredible upset, I knocked him out of the tournament first round! My confidence and excitement was at an all-time high. I saw the excitement on Gilmar and Fabio’s faces as well. I had totally won-over the Canadians with that performance, even my defeated opponents from my division came up to talk to me, complimentary, and wished me luck, saying they were pulling for me to win it all. I was done for the day, the semi-finals and finals would be held the next day, Sunday, and streamed live across the world, for the Sheikhs watching at home in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Man, I felt great.
Well-rested, I was ready the next day. I woke-up knowing this was the day. This was it. My ticket to Abu Dhabi awaited. I checked my facebook profile before leaving the hotel and had unbelievably positive responses and messages from everyone all over, especially my training partners and Kansas City people. What incredible momentum, confidence and strength I felt everywhere!
They had cleared the arena down to one mat for the days fights, formed a backstage warm-up matted area, an announcer, commentators in one corner, podium in another with the big WPJJC banner, tv crew, photographers, three referees per match…this was big time. I got chills, got so very excited. I had made it to the big stage, once again. This is what I live for, these moments. They are rare, few and far between, but given just a taste, that’s what keeps me going. For fifteen years I have been chasing a dream, a goal, with unmatched sacrifices, hard work and persistence…to get to these very moments, create these moments in my life. I live very differently, unlike any other, something most can’t comprehend. Warming-up, blood flowing, endorphins and adrenaline going, mind, body, spirit…those few moments before a fight are the realest thing, the most ‘alive’ feeling I get. Like a drug to a junkie, I’m hooked.
My semi-finals fight was against a tough Marcello Garcia opponent. I knew I was in for a ride, and I would be grinding till the very end. Every second in the match counts and nothing will be given to you at this level, you must take it. In similar fashion to my first round match, I was swept twice, this time from Marcello Garcia-like butterfly guard and x-guard. Down 4-0, and with time running out, I hip over in a scramble, passing guard and then threatening the back. I can feel the tide turn, and this is where I thrive. Instead of folding or having nothing left in the gas tank, I, in turn, do the opposite; I pour it on, furiously and relentlessly. Soon I had his back, flattened him face down, quickly drove my hips down, creating incredible pressure and the tap before I could even fully sink in the choke. Victory. I was now in the finals. One more match!
I was cruising. One by one I had submitted my way to the top of the bracket, I had made it to the dance. Nothing was to stop me. My mind was good, my body felt superior, and my spirit was at its strongest. This was it. It all comes down to one match, seven minutes to Abu Dhabi. I was announced first “…Purple Belt Absolute Finals…Travis Conley” Emerging from the backstage area I felt so incredibly proud of what I was about to do. I felt everyone’s eyes on me there in the arena, the eyes of the camera lenses, and I felt the eyes and hearts of everyone watching back home in the U.S. I ran across the mats, bowing and shaking hands with each of the three mat referees. We came to the center, quick instructions from the central ref before he started the match, quick hand shake with my opponent…and boom, right away he pulled guard. I expected him to, so I planned on shooting for the two point takedown immediately, but he beat me to it. I was looking for double-unders, persistent and confident, I kept at it, not realizing his left foot was hooked under my arm. Instantly he shoots his leg through, and with his overly-long limbs, locks a triangle, even as I base and frame out all the space. “I’m ok,” I thought, ensuring I had space, had room to still move and had my airway secure. I did. That room, the space, however, keep getting smaller…and smaller…and smaller. I had great triangle defense, incredible posture strength so I knew I could withstand it all, his legs would be toast as I held out and defended. I was staying strong. The lock kept getting tighter, and tighter…desperately I kept fighting, but it only got tighter. I was fading, but I knew I had withstood some of the tightest chokes and I could go for long periods without air, more than normal….but I was in a bad way. This was not good. It was nearing almost three minutes inside this triangle and it wasn’t getting any better. “I’m still in this fight” I remember thinking…then I was rolled over, into the mounted triangle, with incredible pressure now…my legs kicked, my body convulsed as if instinctively not giving up…and then went limp, I was out. Lights out. Unconscious. Choked.
As I woke, the oxygen surge was almost overwhelming, as it is every time…but as I listened to the powerful silence, regained my bearings, I was not used to this eerie stillness I was suddenly feeling. The room had stopped. Time had stopped. Everything and everybody was completely still. I had lost. My shot, my ticket, my chance was gone. That’s it. Game over. How did this happen? How did everything go so terribly wrong? Was it over? Why? These questions, all the emotions flooded into me, and the taste of defeat had never been so piercing, so bitter. As I slowly rose to my feet, I felt everyone’s eyes on me once again, but in a very different manner this time. The people, the Canadians in attendance whom I had won-over throughout the past few days with my tenacity and resolve, sadly looked on. Just like the few minutes before, I felt the eyes of the cameras, and the people back home…but this time I felt heavy hearts, my own heart most heavy, pulling everyone else's down. Somehow I stood and held it together, even after having to look into the deep expressions over each of the refs faces as I walked to them to shake their hands. They even whispered some words of encouragement, which triggered more emotion. They sounded muffled, everything was foggy. I met Fabio’s gaze too, and I could just feel how saddened he and everyone was. They wanted me to win, they knew how badly I wanted to win, and I hadn’t.
The feeling in that moment is indescribable…as much as I felt ‘alive’ just minutes before, I felt ‘dead’ now. For fifteen years I had been at this mat game, from first starting as a scrawny, awful wrestler in middle school, to bouncing onto the mats of the squared-circle in professional wrestling, to submission wrestling and then jiu-jitsu. I had been at it for a long time, giving everything, giving my all, day in and day out for a dream, a belief, that I was part of something bigger, something extraordinary. This was part of that, and I had failed. Many people, even ones that know me very well, will never understand what fifteen years of every choice made, backed by, “will this help me win, help me towards my goal or not?” is like. To have such a burning desire that consumes your every thought, every action, every day. I sacrifice friendships, relationships, jobs, time, money, miles, gas, future, body, life, everything, for this one belief. I've been called stupid, most people think I'm crazy and most people would have given up long ago, but this is who I am. This is bigger than I am. My path is different, long and arduous. I have been an underdog my entire life, made it to the dance, the finals, where I should not have been, time and time again…and choked. This was another loss, stinging the worst, and it’s another knife in my side, a blockade placed along my path. All this time, fifteen years, I have never given up, climbed my way back to the top, proving over and over that I’m a contender, that I’m worthy, that I’m extraordinary, and that I have, above all, heart. If it takes me another fifteen years, you’ll still be seeing that heart poured out on mats all across the world, elevating and inspiring the minds and hearts of everyone. I believe.
This writing is dedicated to the memory of a fallen brother, training partner, Jacob Jarozewski. Taken much too young, I was in the middle of writing this blog when he passed, and it made me really think, change directions...took me a long time to finish it. Life is short, just put it all out there, you never know what tomorrow brings. Rest in peace bro. Jacob Rey Jarozewski 1987-2012. http://www.legacy.com/guestbook/kansascity/guestbook.aspx?n=jacob-jarozewski&pid=156472994