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Ready and able

Adaptive grapplers enhance Tulsa’s Jiu Jitsu community

Brandon Teague, a member of Tulsa’s adaptive grappling community, doesn’t let Cerebral Palsy stop him from pursuing his dream of earning a black belt.

Joseph Rushmore

The world isn’t always welcoming to people with disabilities, but a community of Tulsa athletes are rolling with the punches and educating others along the way. Each with their own unique journey, adaptive grapplers Crys Davis, Brandon Teague and Michael Lindsay are changing the way the world looks at martial arts like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. 

“When you really distill it down to its core, adaptive grappling essentially means grappling that is accessible to anyone regardless of ability, or disability,” Davis said. “In some respects, everyone on the mat is a bit adaptive in their own way. Adaptive grappling is kind of an all-hands-on-deck thing. It really requires that the gym, coaches and athletes be really invested in making it a place and a program that is open to anyone. Most places are phenomenal at this, but there is still a ton of work that needs to be done.”

Davis describes her journey with martial arts as winding, having started with Judo in high school. 

“I had looked for a home gym off and on over the years after I started using a wheelchair daily, but I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to find. When I found Trinity Martial Arts, I had honestly kind of given up looking,” she said.

For her, martial arts is about fitness, community and self-defense. 

“That’s kind of the elephant in the room that is awkward for people to talk about. Adults with disabilities are twice as likely to be on the receiving end of physical violence as their non-disabled peers. When you start talking about kids with disabilities, they are four times as likely to experience violence. Four! That’s crazy,” she said. “Yes, someone would have to be a complete sicko to attack me, but there are truly sick people in the world. It does happen. My journey has been about empowering myself to be the least convenient target possible.”

She said Jiu Jitsu hasn’t been a catch-all solution—but it has dramatically changed her day-to-day life in terms of mobility and overall health. On the mat, adapting the sport to suit her abilities is challenging, but for most adaptive grapplers the struggle starts long before that. 

“After having been turned away at a number of places I was feeling a little bit extra aware that I was different,” Davis said. “I really worried that I would hold my training partner back, and I was startled that they didn’t seem to feel that way at all. I was absolutely floored by the Trinity coaches and their willingness to adapt and adjust and try crazy things to help me learn. Heck, Coach Hayes once hung me from the ceiling in a harness and bungee so that I could safely learn to do shots out of my wheelchair.”

Davis visits new gyms when she travels, well aware that she may not be what any of the coaches or students are expecting. But that’s the point.

“Many of them have never had someone who uses a wheelchair on their mats. There’s a whole community of people with disabilities who could benefit from training and some gyms—and many of those individuals—don’t know that’s a possibility,” 
she said.

However, with each new visit, Davis must extensively research the gym. “I always look forward to going new places, but it’s always stressful. There’s a level of anxiety that comes with it, especially if the gym is in an older building. I look at as many pictures of the gym as I can find, and I ask as many questions as possible. Will I be able to park? Can I fit into the bathroom? Can I fit into the dressing area or locker room? Is there a step to get onto the mat? ... Working with new people is often really cool, though. Most people have gone out of their way to be helpful. For the most part, once I am on the mat, I don’t get treated any differently than any other athlete there.”

“Nobody can ever stop me from doing what I love”

Every time Brandon Teague is on the mat, his smile and enthusiasm are unshakable. He said he fell in love with Jiu Jitsu around 2005 after watching it on TV.

“I love that you get to learn new techniques you’ve never seen before. You get to learn wonderful things,” he said. “I plan on doing it a long time, absolutely.”

When it comes to the sport, Teague said he has a plan: “My first goal is to get a black belt, of course. My second goal is to compete in tournaments, and third is to become a cage fighter.”

He hopes to get a Cerebral Palsy division added to area competitions. “One thing I’ve learned through all my struggles in my life, being born with Cerebral Palsy, I can overcome things people never thought I could do,” Teague said. “And nothing and nobody can ever stop me from doing what I love.”

When asked about struggles or difficulties, Teague said nothing really came to mind. He set his mind to doing Jiu Jitsu and with the help of coach Karl Stone and his teammates, and that’s what he’s doing. 

Stone met Teague after a local fight and learned Teague dreamed of training in the sport himself.

“I asked around in Tulsa and everyone said ‘nope,’ ‘no way,’ or ‘I don’t have time,’ but I just couldn’t say no,” Stone said. “It’s only an hour a week out of my time, but it’s a lot to him.” 

Stone said yes. Now Teague’s mom drives from Tulsa to Bristow to bring him to the gym every week.

“To see him in here, always smiling and pumped up … The energy he puts back into the other guys—he’s giving it all. He gets out of his wheelchair, crawls across the mat, and he’s trying. He puts his heart into it. He’s always smiling, always grateful.”

Stone, a black belt, said training Teague has changed his entire outlook on the sport. 

“He has one arm that works normally. His other arm doesn’t straighten, his hand doesn’t open. I, too, am having to learn how to do things another way. It’s fun because I find myself in a situation using what I showed him that I would have never thought of before,” Stone said. “He inspires all of us, every time he gets out there.”

Fear as fuel

Michael Lindsay began training in Jiu Jitsu just to show it could be done. “I wanted to do it to prove that people with my particular circumstance can do whatever they want with enough passion and effort,” Lindsay said. “I am also a high school teacher, and in today’s world I like the notion of practical self-defense that does not rely on the power of size for efficacy.”

Every time he gets on the mat, Lindsay is at a higher risk for injury than others, but he uses that fear as fuel.

“I have had a total of six major abdominal operations, and around a quarter-inch of my small intestine sticks through the right side of my abdomen at all times. I knew that I would be putting myself at risk for a major hernia or worse going in,” he said. “However, embracing that fear and finding my way through is one of the main reasons I wanted to try the practice in the 
first place.”

He started by adding abdominal conditioning to his practice regimen then invested in a safety belt purpose-built for ileostomates with an active lifestyle.

There are other measures, like advising everyone he rolls with of his condition, and avoiding some positions. But overall, Lindsay said, “I approach practicing BJJ as an absolute gift … Jiu Jitsu allows me to confront a challenging situation among the company of passionate people.”

He said his training partners are respectful, accommodating and still provide intense training. 

“Far from taking it easy on me, they give me the opportunity to roll with them on equal terms,” Lindsay said. “They are always both sincere and understanding—and even with my circumstances, they treat me as an equal. The experience has completely changed me for the better and I am ever grateful for it.” 

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