A BJJ professor moves on after gym closure

Location: Houston, TX

Photo by: C D X

COVID-19 left an indelible before-and-after-moment on our planet; a pockmark in time after which nothing will be the same. There are infinite arguments as to whether the devastation could have been avoided or at least curtailed. As one who has weathered hurricanes since infancy, this author can tell you that the pandemic had a great deal in common with a massive storm: You can do everything right, and everything still go wrong. Because although nature follows rules, it reserves the right to defy expectation.

The COVID mortality statistics are staggering. But what can never be accurately documented is the loss of normal living and livelihood. Jiu-Jitsu gyms sit in a spot where those two intersect. No one knows this better than BJJ gym owners who have watched not only their income but dream wash away in the viral storm. Drew Weatherhead is one such business owner.

Photo by: Drew Weatherhead

If you follow BJJ hashtags on Instagram, you know Drew Weatherhead whether you realize it or not. He is the hands behind the hashtag #becausejitsu, the biggest jiu-jitsu meme account on Instagram. He is also the coordinator of the largest submission-only BJJ tournament in western Canada. Neither of those kept his business afloat.

Canada implemented a quarantine in the same fashion as many other countries. And, just as it has been in many other countries, that temporary solution turned into a lasting problem. A shutdown estimated to be of weeks turned into months which effectively drowned many privately owned businesses. It is estimated that in the first year alone of COVID, approximately 600,000 American small businesses closed. In Canada, the numbers are equally staggering, the hardest-hit area being Weatherhead’s home of Alberta, where one in five businesses faced closure.

By the time-limited capacity was allowed to resume, three and a half months after the first quarantine began, half of Drew’s students were gone. Within months he was able to replace his lost clientele by fifty percent, and although finances were touch and go, survival seemed on the horizon. Then, in November, a stay-at-home order went into effect. Like the quarantine, the proposed time was nowhere near reality. But, unlike the quarantine, this mandate came with fines. Any family seen interacting with another could be penalized as much as $1000. No small amount for a world out of work.

By the time the government lifted the stay-at-home order, it was Spring. But, before Drew’s academy was again able to open its doors, yet another stay-at-home order was implemented. As of this writing, Alberta’s third stay-at-home order is still in effect.

From the start of the shutdowns until today, the Canadian government has offered business grants up to $10,000. The application process is arduous, without guarantee, and few jiu-jitsu gyms qualify. Those gyms that do, find that at most they will receive around ten percent of the up to $10,000, which is enough assistance to fulfill the promise but not enough to suffice the definition.

After closing the doors of his gym for good, Drew did not simply accept the devastation. Like the water brought with a flood, he adapted. He sold his home, bought an RV, and took his family on the road. They travel different places, meet new people, create memories, and Drew, as a full-time digital sensei, creates instructional content all along the way. Although the debt from his gym follows him every mile, the burden of it feels lighter against the backdrop of adventure. And while uncertainty is still a storm that seems to constantly loom on the horizon, Drew Weatherhead still drives forward. In his own words, “the continual acceptance of the challenge is the most martial thing anyone can do. And that is something I’ll always step up for.”

After any storm, there is a calm. In that calm, you assess not only what has been lost, but what remains. And, what remains is often what matters most for two reasons. One, the fact that you still have it gives it greater value. Two, you realize it is something that absolutely nothing can take from you. While some of us have lost the opportunity or ability to train BJJ, what the mat taught us will remain. We have learned to turn opposition into opportunity, to turn being swept into a submission, to escape and reverse, to fight off our back when we can’t stand on our feet.

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