Continuing my regular blog series featuring extraordinary people who have been touched by the jiu jitsu bug, today I talk to 41 year-old guitar-nut and BJJ addict Matt Swartz. I first came across Matt when he commented on my pirate picture on Instragram. I was curious why he would write: "hey that looks like me." I checked out his IG feeds and saw that not only did Matt have one leg, he seemed to not let it stop him from his grappling training. I had to find out more...
Q: Hey Matt, thanks for chatting to me. Let me get straight to the point, how did you lose your leg?
Matt: Car crash with multiple skull fractures and crushed bones. I had a severe arterial laceration with a lower leg artery being shredded by bones which were crushed in the crash. They did a tracheotomy on me in the helicopter that was used to fly me from the scene into the nearest critical care unit hospital. Once landing they bypassed the ICU and went directly to the Special Care Unit which is meant to provide 24-7 monitoring and treatment with machines for the most critical of patients. I was in a coma for some time, on life-support with numerous tubes and stuff attached to me to keep me alive as my brain continued to swell from the traumatic brain injuries. The crash was nothing crazy, just a kid not paying attention then in a split second life was diverted to a different path.
Q: Judging from your IG feeds, it's clear it's not something you feel should hold you back, tell me more about your mental approach?
Matt: It was not by choice, perhaps it is of some divine reason- the Lord works in mysterious ways- - whatever the reason – it can’t be changed so I might as well make the best of it.
After I made it back to work I was often asked to do public speeches and even speeches in police academies. I always stress the fact that I am nothing special; I wasn’t shot down in a blaze of glory at a bank robbery or in a swat raid. I was just a plain old street cop on a day off and then I point out the fact that every year we lose more cops to car crashes than gunfire.
The chance of being shot on duty is high while off duty it is largely unlikely. In contrast the chance of being involved in a car crash are not only high during work (higher likelihood than being shot), it is often a much-much higher likelihood of being involved in a crash off-duty.
My speeches would usually include my “take” on what it means to be a cop with one leg (mind you I am very lucky to be somewhat young since I was only 32 when the crash happened and I am a below the knee amputee!!). It goes like this… You need heart to be a cop. That courage to find the inner strength to chase the bad guys and fight the good fight while still having the compassion to care about all. For those who have the heart, there are tools to help you do your duty. A badge and a gun do not automatically make you a cop, they are tools. I can arrest somewhat without handcuffs but they are a tool which would help me put someone in custody. I could walk or run to an incident but a patrol car of course is a necessary tool in our toolbox to help us do our duty. For me I just have an extra tool; a left leg. Don’t take me wrong, I am no super-cop and some may argue that I am not even a good one but cops are a very diverse bunch which is bound to have various opinions and views like any human nature.
Q: So you are still a cop?
A: Yes I am actually a NY State Trooper working full time road patrol (full duty- unrestricted- no light duty despite leg) and my story was covered by many different newspapers, magazines, and even published in a book called Blood Lessons- Real Life Stories What Cops Learn From Life Or Death Encounters (http://www.policeonebooks.com/blood-lessons-by-charles-remsberg.html)
Q: What made you consider trying BJJ?
Matt: Originally I saw the Army Combatives Program on-line with other amputees who were soldiers and being trained to return to combat. My accident was November 2004 and I saw these videos in 2005 while rehabbing myself and fighting to keep my job. While I never got involved in jiu-jitsu or combatives at that time, I did not forget. A few of my fellow state troopers are involved in BJJ but could never really encourage me enough to try it. This past November I hit another anniversary of the crash and like I have done every year, I count my blessings, think/analyze progress, goals, and activities the past year, and then set a few new goals to accomplish in the New Year. This year I decided I was going to try and get involved with this thing called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or combatives.
Q: Tell me about your BJJ training?
Matt: I train at Spa City Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (http://www.spacitybjj.com/). I checked around and looked at other schools in our area (there aren’t many) and then went in to try a free class at Spa City. The instructor I met was Eddie Fyvie who is a blackbelt of Ricardo Almeida under Renzo Gracie. I had a hand-me-down Gi from one of my co-workers when I went there that first time. I told him I wanted to try a class and then inquired about what to do with my leg. His reply was, “Jiu-Jitsu is about adaptation. This is gonna be a fun challenge and you might have to adapt differently. This will be really neat, change and get on the mat.” I have been there happily training and learning with Eddie since. I am in classes with and just like everyone else with the occasional moment when he will come over and have me do something slightly different because my efforts are not accomplishing what’s at task due to my leg.
Q: What adaptations have you made when grappling and competing? For example, do you train much stand-up technique and how do you play closed guard (if you do?)
Matt: Since I am still new, I can’t say what adaptations are necessary. My instructor shows me a technique and I do my best to complete it… or my opponent does something and I make attempts to learn how to not let it happen again. I am so new to BJJ that I don’t know what I am doing with or without the leg.
Q: What kind of responses do you get from new training partners when they first meet/roll with you?
Matt: Everyone has been friendly and accommodating if I ask. Many have felt uneasy in asking me about my leg but most are curious. Some roll like they don’t care and some are more careful to help me learn while being careful not to hurt me too bad. A little pain is required to help lessons and progress sink in J.
Q: What other sporting activities do you take part in?
Matt: I do a little bit of weight lifting and running depending on how busy my jiu-jitsu class schedule is or how sore I am. I have done other sports in the recent past but for the last couple years I have been taking college classes in addition to full-time work so I haven’t had much time for extra sports activities other than watching sports on tv. I enjoy watching WWE wrestling and of course UFC. But I also play guitar whenever I have a free minute but that’s not a sport (unless a finger workout counts).
Q: I see you've been travelling around sampling BJJ academies on the West Coast? Tell me about that?
Matt: The task of learning BJJ is indeed fun, but I think meeting all the new people has been more than half the draw for me. This little vacation has allowed me to meet and train with some of the best in the world who are practitioners in this Gentle Art. Some hugely famous but most are just like me. Getting a chance to meet and talk with others involved in BJJ has often lead to neat surprises. Training with someone that is a purple belt only to find out that they lost weight, or working with a white belt and finding out they were a high school wrestler. Even rolling with someone and learning they sell stocks and bonds, are a pizza delivery person, or stay at home mom, a cop, or heck- even an amputee. These are the really intriguing things which occur while getting involved with BJJ and as I said, this form of human interaction (versus texting, emailing, skyping etc) that has been so much fun and for me especially.
Q: You've competed at tournaments too I see?
Matt: . I am still new to this sport and have only competed in a couple tournaments but I have had so many people come up to me after matches and tell me that I am inspirational or astonishing or things like that. Some different teams have offered and welcomed me to join/train with them and I have even had a few ask to get a picture taken with me. I have yet to win a tournament but as you see in my Instagram feed I always come out with a smile (even if it takes a minute for it to appear after realizing I lost again). I have met some truly great people at these events and have been beaten by them too J. My Instructor Eddie Fyvie tells me what Rickson Gracie said, that it’s not losing it is learning. I smirk and say, I must be an expert now because I lose all the time (big grin).
Q: Matt it's a real honour meeting you, anything you'd like to close with?
Matt: In my personal life and speeches I have always stressed the importance of family. Not just because family is God’s way of keeping us growing together but they are your support network as things in life happen which you may need help to navigate. After a bad car crash or a gunshot, you will be thankful they are there. In my case, I have a large “family”; I have many brother and sister officers in law enforcement that came to my side when I was so critically injured. That extended-family was and is my support network when I needed help so badly. Fast forward to today, I have extended my family by “joining the family” in Brazilian jiu-Jitsu.