On June 3rd, 2010, the 2009 double gold ADCC champion, Braulio Estima, was paralyzed from the neck down after a training accident. In a recent TapouT Radio interview, the world champion took some time to discuss his life since the incident, and shared the inspirational story of his journey back to the winners circle.
On becoming paralyzed
“This was definitely the scariest thing that ever happened to me. It was the worst ever sensation I ever had in all of my entire life, including my personal life or any kind of situation I’ve been through. I don’t wish this on anybody. When I fell on my neck, I was actually training. It was an accident. I went for a single leg, and I slipped on the mat and the guy went to do some movement that also wasn’t the best, and I ended up falling on my neck. I got completely paralyzed from the neck down, and for that few minutes it was like the worst feeling. It feels like you are taken out of your body and you can see your body from far away. Your body looks like someone else’s body. You have no control or feel, or nothing.”
“I felt like, ‘I can’t believe that happened to me, that’s it, I’m off, I’m done.’ It was a very scary feeling and the first thing that came into my mind was that I wouldn’t be able to pick up my son, and this was very frustrating. After a few minutes, I felt this tingling in my toes, and I could feel it coming up in my legs, but my arms took a while to feel proper. It was very tough for me, the first thing I heard from the Doctors was that I wouldn’t be able to do any sport at all, especially contact sports. If I wanted to do any sports, I could be good in darts, you know? I said ‘Oh man, I cannot believe it’ and so many things were on my mind, things that all my life I had been going to do this. You live all your life doing one thing, and suddenly you’re taken out of it. I felt kind of lost, in the nothing, like I had stepped into something where I’d never been before.”
The road to recovery
“I always had a very positive feeling, in terms of determination, to be able to achieve, and to overcome this injury. I started doing some research into different
doctors and different techniques. I found this doctor, Peter Hamlyn of Princess Grace Hospital, and he had this technique that would be able to allow me to keep my flexibility in my neck, because that’s the worry I was having. I had two prolapsed discs in my neck, and they were hitting on my spinal cord. My spinal cord looked like a ‘Z’ , like a zig-zag thing. Because it was touching on the discs, anything could happen where I could be paralyzed for life, or even die. I went to the normal hospitals and when they said I had to have plates that would be screwed on each vertebrae, which meant that I would lose flexibility. Therefore, the pressure from any impact on the neck would be doubled. I was really worried about that, and that’s why I did the research and I found this technique where they substitute the discs and put in a titanium disc that also fuses and has the flexibility at the same time. It was a lucky find, and after I did the surgery, I could already move my neck, three days after.”
“The training after that, it was pretty scary in the beginning, because you are very cautious about your neck. You don’t want to overreact on anything. In a lot of techniques I do, I use my neck and my head to pin opponents, and then to push. It’s like wondering when your arm or your leg is going to start working. It’s horrible. You start to get confidence though, through therapy, strength and conditioning and using a lot of strength to compensate for the power in the neck, until I was fully recovered.”
“I was so happy that I’d managed to adapt everything around it, and I could start training early. I was very lucky to have people that were helping me out in training, so that I didn’t over commit myself. It was very good for me to have these type of training partners, who understood my situation, and never put my neck under pressure until I had enough confidence.”
“In the two months of training prior to ADCC, I was able to fully use my neck. Now I can do anything with my neck. I still have some side effects, some feelings in my hand and some tingling on my left leg when I put it under pressure, but in terms of strength and power control, I’m as good as before.”
Returning to competition
“Six months after my accident, I fought in the European championships, and after the competition, I flew straight back to the hospital and had my surgery. I had lost a very close friend to cancer. I felt I will fight in these championships, and I will dedicate the match to him. I went to his funeral on the Saturday, flew to Portugal on Saturday night and won my category and went back straight to the hospital on Monday. It was a very big, busy weekend with a lot of emotions, but I felt something inside. For me to compete was a silly thing to do, but I’m glad that everything went well.” (Note: Braulio didn’t just compete in the 2011 European championships, he won them)
Developing a winning strategy
“It’s a funny thing with me. When I usually start training for a competition, I tend to go towards the techniques and strategy, according to what is appearing the most in my training. For example, it’s about moods to me. For this competition, I start training and I start seeing what my body brings more to the fight, what kind of situation appears the most. When I see what situation is happening the most towards my game plan and the game that I use in my training, I start to figure out a pass to intensify my strategy towards the area that’s been appearing the most throughout that season. When I was training for the 2009 ADCC, the inverted triangle was pretty fluent and very natural for me, and I was just falling into those situations. I thought, ‘Okay, in the competition I will try to make my fight go towards that area’, and then I started to develop different techniques to be able to bring the fight towards that. Then, that happened with Andre Galvao, and I almost defeated Xande with an inverted triangle in the final of the absolute, as well. My body was so adapted to bringing me to that scenario and then I start setting it up on purpose. For instance, I made him feel very comfortable in my guard and in an area that he shouldn’t be comfortable, so I made a trap. I rested my left leg on top of his shoulder, and made him think that he can actually put pressure on me. As soon as he put the pressure on me, that’s when I twisted on him and got the triangle.”
One thing is certain, nothing appears able to stop Estima from achieving whatever goal he sets his mind to. Even in the face of what would be a career ending injury for most, his dedication to his craft and never say die attitude prevailed. One can’t help but admire a man with this level of determination.
You can follow Braulio Estima on Twitter.
Listen to the TapouT Radio interview here.