By Nicolas Fernandes
A paralyzed Navy veteran has become a wheelchair Jiu-Jitsu pro who competes against able-bodied people around the country.
Brian Freeman, 44, of North Carolina, USA, was convinced by his daughter Katie, 8, to give the martial art a try and now five years later, he’s traveling around the country competing in tournaments.
He never thought he would be active again when surgery for a spinal cord injury left him paralyzed – after he was hit by radar equipment in the U.S. Navy.
Forced to live in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, the disabled veteran was afraid he wouldn’t be alive much longer and decided it would be a good idea for his daughter Katie to learn self-defense.
Six months after the eight-year-old enrolled in classes, she suggested that her father give it a try and despite initially doubting his ability to practice the sport, he started private lessons.
He realized that he could spend 95 percent of the time out of his chair and perform many of the techniques that his able-bodied classmates could.
To this day, the purple belt has competed in six different states as well as in Toronto, Canada, winning more than a dozen first and second place medals and two championship belts.
Brian said: “When I became paralyzed, my goal was to get my daughter into martial arts.
“I wasn’t sure how much longer I’d be around and I wanted her to learn how to protect herself.
“She loved it and suggested that I give it a try. I remember telling her that it was going to be a completely different experience for me.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t sure if I was capable of doing it or not. My coach didn’t know what to expect either.
“We just started doing private lessons. Those really gave me a feel for what kind of mobility I had and what I would and wouldn’t be able to do.
“The first time I was out of the chair, I knew I could do it.”
Brian spent nine months in private lessons before he joined the regular sized classes.
In that time, he worked on figuring out which techniques he could and couldn’t do.
Brian said: “The first nine months of my journey was basically letting me know the different things I could do one after another.
“I was amazed that the techniques worked the way they did. Not everything worked for me though. It was all a learning experience.”
Not only has Jiu-jitsu become something that Brian enjoys, but it has also served as therapy for him.
All of Brian’s discomfort, pain and nausea goes away when he is training.
warPIC BY BRIAN FREEMAN / CATERS NEWSIn addition, he feels more positive outside of class because he spends time thinking about jiu-jitsu rather than the side-effects of his surgery.
Brian said: “Those things get me down sometimes, but I don’t feel like they are there when I’m in class. I don’t feel or think about any of it.
“Jiu-jitsu takes all the pain away. It’s not just when I’m on the mat. It lasts a whole lot longer. After I leave the dojo, I think about a technique or something I did in class that day.
“It has carried into my regular life a lot more than I had ever imagined.”
Brian’s involvement in martial arts has also improved the relationship between him and Katie.
Now, a 12-year-old yellow/white belt, Katie is able to coach her father.
Brian said: “Most people don’t know how to coach me unless they’ve trained with me a lot, but she is one of the very few people who can.
“I think she is really excited about me doing Jiu-jitsu. I think it makes her feel like I’m a regular dad. It’s important to me that she feels that way and I feel like it inspires her a little bit.
“I’m able to give her a lot of experiences. It’s a great, positive bond.”
As the only disabled student at his dojo, Brian has gotten a lot of looks from classmates, but it is usually just due to the shock that someone in his situation is training.
Sometimes they are concerned about hurting him, but he does not feel like he has gotten any special treatment at competitions.
Brian said: “They’re pretty much all surprised. There’s always a lot of curiosity about how I do it without my legs.
“There’s also some who are very cautious because they’re afraid of hurting me.
“I don’t feel like I’ve gotten any special treatment in competitions. If anything, I feel like everyone fights a little harder against me because they don’t want to lose to the handicapped guy.”
Brian’s accomplishments are far beyond what he ever imagined.
Just five short years ago when he was in the hospital, he was praying to God because he wanted to be a ‘normal dad’ again.
Brian said: “I was unhappy with everything. I prayed to God and said, ‘you need to get me out of this.’
“I just wanted to be a normal dad. I never would have expected any of the things that I’m doing now.”