From Athlete to Coach: 10 Years of International SAMBO Competition [Part 2]

From Athlete to Coach: 10 Years of International SAMBO Competition [Part 2]

You can read Part 1 of Reilly's journey by clicking here.

A few years before moving from New Orleans to California, I made another attempt at the USA Sambo Championships. I won a silver medal as the only American-born citizen in a field of Russians and Moldovans. It would be a few years until the USA regulating body would separate the US Open from the US Championships, so American athletes were always doomed to losing their own national event to better ex-Soviet Bloc Sambists. Regardless, I was proud that I advanced one podium spot since the last time I tried.

The 2013 USA Sambo Championships featuring a guest appearance from Vlad Koulikov’s coaching voice.

In my time in New Orleans, I learned a lot. I began training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Matthias Meister, and I gained a ton of valuable knowledge from him and the other black and brown belts from NOLA. One coach in particular, Collin Murray, became my chief sounding board for new ideas and philosophies about martial arts. With his help I won my professional MMA debut just a few weeks after doing the Sambo Nationals in 2013.

In 2015, I moved to northern California, and began teaching at the Bay Jiu-Jitsu location in Oakland. I was pleased to find an incredibly accommodating group of students and coaches who were interested in expanding their grappling parameters to include more stand-up wrestling and leg locks. The owner of the Bay Jiu-Jitsu gyms, Stephan Goyne, soon became my chief training partner, and he was fully invested in incorporating Sambo into the gym’s regimen. We began introducing Sambo techniques and rule sets not only to the adults but also to the kids program. We ordered Kurtka (Sambo jackets) from Russia and started holding in-house tournaments for both kids and adults.

Bay Jiu-Jitsu students practicing Sambo in the new Berkeley location.

The students at Bay Jiu-Jitsu were fearless in their adaptation to new techniques and new grappling mindsets. I was learning a lot as well. I continued my Jiu-Jitsu training, now under Stephan Goyne, and was working on my no gi grappling, Sambo, and gi jiu-jitsu each week.

Teaching was going great, but at the start of 2016 I decided I wanted to push myself as a competitor in Sambo as far as I could. I flew in Jeremy Paiser, an ASA Combat Sambo Master of Sport and a friend of mine from NY to help prepare for the season. Together we competed in the Arnold Classic, and I was able to win the tournament this time around.

Jeremy Paiser and Reilly Bodycomb at the 2016 Arnold Classic Sambo Open rocking the then new red Inverted Gear shorts.

After this, I returned to Holland, but this time to fight in Combat Sambo. That was the first time I had fought full contact since my pro-MMA debut back in 2013. Even though I had largely competed in grappling rule sets, I have always tried to return to sports with full-contact striking periodically to keep my martial arts honest. I thankfully won both of my fights that year in Holland.

Reilly Bodycomb still looking pretty after the Dutch Combat Sambo Open in 2016

In the same year, I took another shot at the USA Sambo Championships. I am proud to say I won my matches, but it's a bittersweet victory as none of the previous champions were there to stand in my way. This gold medal did, however, open up the opportunity to travel to Paraguay to represent the USA in the Pan-American Sambo Championships later in the year.

Now enters the head panda himself, Nelson Puentes. Nelson and I became good buds a few years before after meeting through our mutual friend, and martial arts genius, Ryan Hall. When I told Nelson I was headed to Paraguay it didn't take a lot of convincing to get him to come along. It was very good that he did, however, because he quickly became the unofficial USA team guide and translator. This was my first time traveling with the new governing body of USA Sambo, and they assembled a team of killers.

The 2016 USA Sambo team in Paraguay

I worked my way through some tough opponents and won a gold medal, making me the 2016 Pan-Am Sambo Champion and elevating me to the rank of 5th in the world in the 68kg weight class. This was my new, and still, proudest moment in my competition career.

Reilly Bodycomb and Nelson Puentes at the 2016 Pan-American Sambo Championships in Paraguay


Reilly Bodycomb in the 2016 Pan-Am Sambo Championships

In the same year, I was able to accompany the team to Bulgaria and compete once again at the World Championships. Despite eight more years of training and competing under my belt I still couldn't get past my first opponent. When it came to the highest level of Sambo competition, I just couldn't hack it. It is a constant problem for American athletes in international Sambo. Each year we reach out and try, but making that podium at the World’s, against the nations that are strongest in Sambo, has proven extremely difficult. Regardless, I was quite proud of how far I had gotten in the international Sambo competition scene.

Shark Stimulation: An energy drink that is probably illegal outside of Bulgaria.

On that long return flight from Bulgaria, I looked back on my career in Sambo. Though I could see clear growth in my ability and understanding, I also had to face my limitations as an athlete. I found myself asking the question, where do I go from here? I took a yearlong break from Sambo competition, and focused on other aspects of my training. I started competing in gi Jiu-Jitsu and earned my black belt. I won the USA Combat Wrestling trials, and got to go to Japan, again with panda partners Nelson Puentes and Hillary Witt as my guides. When 2018 rolled around my excitement for Sambo season reignited as my path became clearer to me: The right direction for me was to shift my attention away from constantly competing, and see if I could help others find success in the combat sport I love the most.

As a coach I had taken several teams to domestic Sambo events over the years out of the various gyms I taught at, but I had never brought a team to an international Sport Sambo event. Luckily at Bay Jiu-Jitsu I found I had a committed group of athletes ready to do the work and who were up for the challenge.

I knew it was important to find the right tournament for this fledgling Sambo team. We needed an event professionally run and consistent, administered in English, fairly judged, and that would not require travel visas or complicated governing body invitations. The Dutch Sambo open was the obvious choice, as I had been there twice before, and was very satisfied with the way it was organized.

Now it was time to prepare a team for this level of competition. Coming from the USA, this is tough. There are very few Sambo tournaments for American athletes to build their skills in, so I had to figure out a way to create the opportunity. In 2017, I created the Rdojo Sambo League, a nationwide network of ranked in-house Sambo tournaments that would give Americans a chance to experience the rules (or at least something similar) of an international Sambo event. These events had prize support from Inverted Gear, national rankings, and medals for the winners. We held one in each of the three Bay Jiu-Jitsu locations, and gym owners from Texas, Louisiana, Chicago, New York, and North Carolina also held events. (Fun fact, fellow panda and Rdojo team member Javier Palomo won the overall highest ranking among all the athletes nationwide.) 

An 2017 Rdojo Sambo League tournament in Spring, TX

These tournaments gave my students, and many other grapplers, the opportunity to see what Sambo was like, and find out if it was something they enjoyed. For a fair amount of my own students, it turned out it was. Several of them wanted to compete internationally. Besides my direct students at Bay, there was also interest from longtime Rdojo team member Wannes de Roover from Belgium. He had competed in the Dutch Sambo Open with me in 2016, and was eager to give it a go in Combat Sambo. Another interested party was Blair Turton, a BJJ black belt from Canada who had been trekking down to my seminars and training camps over the past year. He was a standout at the camps, in that he was talented, dedicated, wore a Star Trek rashguard, and knew how to play Magic: The Gathering. All of which are important aspects I look for in people who want to join team Rdojo. So, with the interested students from Bay Jiu-Jitsu, Wannes from Belgium, and Blair from Canada, I now had a team of eleven athletes from three countries on the Rdojo Sambo Team.

The 2018 Rdojo Sambo Team from left to right: Blair Turton, Wannes De Roover, Eric Guico, Kate Reed, Michelle Morejon, Keaton Andreas, Moises Cervantes, Stephan Goyne, Chris Loera, Andy Nguyen, Alex Poniz, and coach Reilly Bodycomb.

Coordinating this group was a skill all in its own. I looked to my original Sambo coach, Stephen Koepfer for advice, as he had been bringing the USA Combat Wrestling team to international events over the past few years.

“It’s like herding cats,” was the warning he gave me.

We had to get eleven athletes, five spouses, and one toddler to all be on the same page. With the help of Wannes as our “man on the ground” in Europe, we were able to get everybody to the tiny hotel in Dalfsen without losing anyone.

The team successfully blending in as we gallivant through western Europe.

The next hurdle was weight cutting. It proved to be an emotional group effort and there were some heightened feelings when it came to who got to be in the car and drive over to the venue to weigh-in first. But in the end, no one passed out, everyone made weight, and they all ate a bountiful dinner that night. I hopefully learned something about managing hungry personalities to make that a smoother experience in the future. The next morning we got our big breakfast and were ready to go. The team looked amazing in their matching Inverted Gear track suits and spirits were high. Unfortunately, our youngest athlete dislocated his shoulder during warm-ups, and that put a damper in the whole team’s mood. That was another coaching lesson I learned: The importance on overseeing warm-ups more closely and teaching the correct pace to drill on game day.

Luckily when our first athlete up, Michelle Morejon, she dominated her first match! This got our team back in the right mode. At the end of the day, they all performed amazingly well with their freshman effort; the team earned five medals when all was said and done. There were many exciting aspects of this experience. Not the least of which was watching Stephan Goyne, the owner of Bay Jiu-Jitsu and the man who promoted me to black belt in BJJ, competing at an international Sambo event. In fact, watching an entire team of BJJ practitioners ranging from blue belt to black belt work this hard to expand their comfort zone by competing in Sambo was amazing. It revealed how well integrated the concepts of cross-training and being a complete grappler had permeated throughout the gym.

The Rdojo Sambo Team at the 2018 Dutch Sambo Open

The most important moment for me, however, was realizing halfway through the tournament that it had been ten years since I first competed in an international Sport Sambo event. There was a simultaneous sense of completion, and of a new beginning in that realization. I don’t know whether over the next ten years I will spend more time back in the competition arena, rocking nervously in that coach’s chair, or just cheering from the sidelines. For now, however, I am happy with the path that brought me here, and I look forward to the next ten years of the martial arts journey ahead.