Arctic Jiu-Jitsu: The Birth of BJJ in Greenland
A few weeks ago I was talking with my friend Christian Graugart to coordinate details about a BJJ Globetrotter camp in Italy, on the Island of Sardinia. I was looking forward to some sun and to working on my surfing skills. As is typical for Christian, he had a completely different idea.
“I am taking a group of guys to Greenland, you should totally come,” he said. “I'll get you to wrestle a polar bear. It will be great for your brand.”
I’m not sure if Christian knows that pandas are different from polar bears, but the invitation struck a chord anyway. I have been somewhat fascinated by Greenland and Iceland since I learned about early settlements in that region during a visit to the National History Museum in Copenhagen. Plus, who wouldn’t want to help spread BJJ in one of the most remote places in the world?
Since there were no direct flights into Nuuk from the U.S., Hillary and I flew into Reykjavik and spent 24 hours there (you can read about that adventure here) then came to Nuuk on a propeller plane (an adventure itself). Three hours and some amazing views later. we landed in Nuuk, the northernmost capital city in the world. The population is about 12,000, which accounts for roughly a third of the total population of Greenland. The landscape in Greenland, especially this time of the year before it turns green, feels alien—Lots of barren rocks and multi-colored buildings sprouted along the coast of an otherwise mostly uninhabited region.
We met our host Jason at the airport. He started training BJJ while in Denmark when he was getting his Dentistry degree and earned his blue belt before returning home. He started a small BJJ school in an exercise room at the sports hall simply because he wanted to train. He lays down puzzle mats before every class and picks them at the end to make room for other classes, like spin and yoga. He has managed to entice 10 locals to join him in the pajama wrestling classes. They currently train twice a week and are hoping to add more classes as they get more members.
Once we were settled and ate some traditional food for lunch—whale skin, reindeer jerky and dried fish—we headed to the school to train. A few locals were there, three campers that arrived early from Iceland, and one American that flew from Germany where he was stationed. I had the honor of being the first BJJ black belt to teach in Greenland (according to the locals), by sneakily booking my flight a day earlier than Christian. I was impressed with the grapplers I met and how far along they have come after only training twice a week, with a small training group, and a blue belt as an instructor. Jason has done a great job.
After camp started and more BJJ travelers arrived, we got more training done, and we went on a fjord safari, my absolute favorite part of the trip. A boat took us out to the fjord to see the stunning beauty of the Greenland Sea, and we got lucky enough to see a humpback whale.
During this excursion, we had some dead time on the way back. We finally sat down and work on something we have been talking about for a long time: an Inverted Gear x BJJ Globetrotters collaboration gi. Outside the inverted polar bear that was a given, we got some inspiration from the stunning landscape and the patterns on the national outfit of Greenland, which we observed during confirmation ceremony at the local church a few days earlier. We are finishing up the designed and hoping to have the gi available sometime later this year.
During the camp, Christian asked us what we thought about promoting some of the locals. All 4 of the camp instructors agreed, and we promoted Jason the instructor to purple belt and one of his students to blue belt. His student Amos, was very emotional and asked us to forgive his English, but he told us how BJJ saved his life. After battling with depression and alcoholism (one of the biggest social problems in Greenland), he has been sober since he started training two years ago. That was a moving moment for all of us.
As we get ready to leave Greenland, I reflect on how incredible it is for BJJ have taken root here, one of the most isolated countries in the world. Outside of those four walls, the closest academy is in Reykjavik, 891 miles away. I will remember that next time I find myself complaining about a slow turnout to class, or how far I have to drive to train. If you ever feel adventurous and want to go to Greenland, now the door will be open to you as this group of guys continue to grow the gentle art in one of the most isolated places in the world.