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George Alteen, right, observes his students during a training session of the Corner Brook Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Club at the Vine Place Community Centre on Tuesday night.
George Alteen, right, observes his students during a training session of the Corner Brook Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Club at the Vine Place Community Centre on Tuesday night. - Chris Quigley

It’s called the gentle art, George Alteen says, as his Brazilian jiu-jitsu students struggle, sweat, and sometimes splat on the matted floors in front of him on Tuesday night.

Whether that term was meant to be ironic or not is anyone’s guess, but at first glance around the makeshift training space — with blue padding stuck to the wooden walls and a single basketball net hanging for no particular reason — in the Vine Place Community Centre, the sights and sounds of what’s going on seem anything but gentle.

With 16 people, not counting Alteen, paired up and fighting for position as they practice various techniques and defenses, it would be easy to see how a person might get frustrated. Tied up in the limbs of someone whose sole intent is to wrap you up or keep you down, the humid environment — warmer than usual, on this night, Alteen notes — made even worse by the heavy gi worn by all participants.

Instructor George Alteen strides around the room offering advice, encouragement, or the occasional visual aid, while the class takes place.
Instructor George Alteen strides around the room offering advice, encouragement, or the occasional visual aid, while the class takes place.

But when the drill breaks, the vertical help the horizontal to their feet with a smile and a quick word or two of encouragement, before the sweat-soaked students all head to their water bottles, pausing only to gasp a little air, before tipping the bottle again.

Nobody there is getting angry or agitated.

“You need a healthy ego for jiu-jitsu,” Alteen says. “The ones that don’t, don’t last.”

Alteen, a Corner Brook native, was an amateur wrestler as a kid. When he moved to St. John’s for university, the now 32-year-old saw an advertisement for a Brazilian jiu-jitsu class and decided to check it out.

“That was all she wrote,” he said.

He’s been involved with the sport for 13 years now, attaining brown-belt status in the process.

When he returned to the city, he wanted to continue training, but classes didn't exist. So, about two years ago, he started his own.

Originally, it was just him and a couple of friends, which led to a few other guys joining in who had already done some training in the art. Through word of mouth, attendance grew, and now, three times a week, anywhere from 15-20 people arrive. All ages and all skill levels welcomed.

The gis are worn on weeknights, for a more traditional style of grappling, while the weekend allows for shorts and t-shirts and a lesson slanted towards a mixed martial arts style.

A typical class begins with a warm-up, then technique training, followed by sparring during the final half-hour or so of the 90-minute session.

On this night, the warm-up consisted of retaining the guard, where the combatant on their back attempts to manage the distance between themselves and the aggressor.

When it comes to any grappling sport, Alteen says, managing the distance is the crucial element.

Christian Simms, right, grapples with a fellow participant during Tuesday's session. At 16 years old, Simms is the youngest participant in the class.
Christian Simms, right, grapples with a fellow participant during Tuesday's session. At 16 years old, Simms is the youngest participant in the class.

Among the students at Tuesday’s session, Christian Simms stands out as the youngest, by a fair bit.

Just 16 years old, he’s attended Alteen’s classes since they began, and even when he’s clinched up with a sparring partner, he’s smiling. It’s like he can’t stop.

He credits watching MMA bouts with his uncle as a child as his motivation for picking up the sport.

He’d watch smaller guys handling larger opponents with ease and couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“I wanted to try to do that,” he said. “I found out jiu-jitsu was what it was.

“Ever since my first class, I’ve just loved it.”

Alteen’s enthusiasm is equally infectious as he strides from pairing to pairing, offering advice or throwing out a compliment, wherever he sees fit.

The class feels more like a family than a fight club, and maybe the term gentle art is accurate after all.

For more information on the Corner Brook Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu club, contact Alteen at (709) 691-5171.

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