When you think of martial arts, you may picture ferocious mixed martial arts fighters battling like gladiators, or maybe somebody in a black belt yelling “Hi-yah!” as they karate-chop a cinder block in two. Like MMA and karate, jujitsu is also a martial art, but it is so different from them it is known as “the gentle art.”
The sport originated in Japan when Samurai fighters realized they needed a way to defend themselves if they lost their swords on the battlefield. The heavy armor they wore made blows ineffective, so they came up with a way to use leverage to take their opponents down instead.
The techniques and strategy of jujitsu can help a smaller fighter overpower a bigger, stronger opponent. This is done by using leverage to take the fight to the ground, then applying joint locks and chokeholds to defeat your foe. It’s a great way to teach young kids self-defense, discipline and confidence, and Yakima is home to several jujitsu schools. One of them is a nonprofit dedicated to making the sport accessible to kids who would not be able to afford it otherwise.
Gonzalo Garcia and Carly Woolman are the co-owners and coaches at Arsenal Jiu-Jitsu Academy. Gonzalo first got interested in martial arts in high school, when his brother dragged him to a mixed martial arts gym. Gonzalo grew up in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom house in east Yakima with his parents and five siblings. He says martial arts changed his life. “English isn’t my first language. A lot of the material at school just didn’t click. But being on the mats and learning martial arts — it just made sense.”
His family couldn’t afford multiple fees and uniforms, so Gonzalo babysat for the owner, cleaned the gym, and started training other students to pay his way, eventually fighting in the amateur rankings. He will get a degree in biology at Central Washington University this summer, and says Arsenal is part of his mission to give back to the community. “I feel like it’s my duty to pay it forward and pass on what kept me and my brothers out of trouble. On Friday nights we weren’t out partying or drinking or anything. We were at the gym.”
The class for 5- to 10-year-olds at Arsenal starts with a warm-up. Kids dressed in belted uniforms called “Gis” do jumping-jacks, sit-ups, and bridges as Carly and Gonzalo yell out commands. “Feet down on the mat, hands close to your body! We’re going to do bridges. Here we go!” After that the kids lope across the floor on all fours like monkeys, some blazing across the mat with astounding speed. They scramble across the mat again in the snake, then the crocodile position as Gonzalo urges them on. They’re laughing and out of breath in just a few minutes. Then, they team up to practice holds and locks, each partner taking a turn as the dominant, then submissive fighter.
Carly helps Gonzalo demonstrate the drills. She says strength and technique are important, “but the biggest thing is confidence.” At her day job teaching English at West Valley High School, she sees more verbal than physical bullying. But she says jujitsu teaches kids how to defend themselves physically if they need to, and some of their students have used those techniques to conquer playground bullies.
Another important aspect of the sport is respect. Kids must bow as they enter and leave the mat and bow to their instructors at the beginning and end of class. “This is a sport that’s all about respect. Being respectful to your teacher, your partner, and the facility itself,” she says.
Aimee Ruiz of Yakima has been bringing her son to Arsenal for five months. “It continues the things you are teaching at home,” she says. “It keeps him healthy and in shape. For him I think jujitsu works really well because he has so much energy.” Tyler Quantrille of Selah just started bringing his son. “I grew up in the wrestling community and I’ve always wanted to get my son into wrestling or jujitsu,” he says. He signed his son up for basketball and baseball, but found they lacked the structure of jujitsu.
Arsenal offers a one-week free trial. Their classes are twice a week, for kids age 5 and up, and cost $50 a month. The academy also offers financial assistance for tuition and tournaments. Their students compete in local and national contests, and some have won medals.
Arsenal has gotten a lot of help from the community. Donors including Legends Casino and Fade Aholics barber shop helped buy uniforms and the big blue mat the kids use for drills. Graphic artist Daniel Chiqui’s kids attend, and he helped by designing their website.
Gonzalo hopes to stay in Yakima and work in the fruit industry when he graduates, so he can continue teaching kids this unique and empowering sport.