Meet the Pandas – Beyond the Wrestling Ego – Pat Hemenway
Meet the Pandas sheds light on the many citizens of the Panda Nation. Last episode explored the drive of black belt Claire-France Thévenon of MK Team, multiple time IBJJF medalist and sweeping machine. Now, we’d like to introduce Pat Hemenway of Pellegrino MMA: a brown belt medal chaser, former pro-surfer, and wrestler who learned to love the gi.
As a kid, Pat Hemenway (28) was hindered by a severe learning disability and dyslexia. High school wrestling and competitive surfing were great outlets for his energy, and taught him the value of persistence. But it wasn’t until he discovered Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that he finally found his calling, and he was able to channel his unique perspective to become a full-time BJJ athlete and instructor.
How did grappling find you?
Pat Hemenway: I started wrestling as a kid in fifth grade and kept it up a few years, until sophomore year in high school – then I just stopped. I truly hated school and couldn’t deal with the added stress of competition nerves, weigh cutting and all of that. So I stepped away from grappling for a few years. I live right on the Jersey Shore, so I became a professional surfer. Surfing was my first passion.
But somehow the mat pulled you back…
PH: Yeah, I had a good run as a pro surfer. I was able to make a living from surfing for a while, and I accomplished everything I wanted in that sport – I even had my own signature board. But around eight years ago I walked into a gym to get a workout in at a local fitness shop, and my friend got me to join the grappling class. Well, things exploded from there. I became completely obsessed with jiu-jitsu. One year later a few of my friends joined my current gym, and they dragged me along and I got introduced to my mentor Kurt Pellegrino. We had an immediate click. I’ve been with him ever since.
Did Kurt bring you up through the ranks?
PH: Yeah, I got all my belts from him. After training with Kurt for around four months I got promoted to blue belt, and I was asked to help out with the classes. I discovered I had a knack for teaching. Jiu-jitsu just came naturally to me. It was crazy, I’d never experienced such immediate success in anything.
How did you get good so fast?
PH: I was all one big cascade of one thing leading to another. Even as I kid I was always extremely hands-on. I was able to pick up on things through experience very quickly, by just doing it. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that I have a severe learning disability – I have crazy dyslexia, which makes conventional learning in school very difficult. But when I discovered jiu-jitsu, it turned out to be something that I was intuitively good at, and I poured my heart and soul into it. I’d never thought I’d be able to do this for a living and travel to different places to compete. But that was all the result of my dedication.
So you’re not just a phenom?
PH: I definitely put the work in. I was part of this little blue belt dream team of about eight guys. We were the enforcers of the gym and went to tournaments all the time. Kurt actually held all of us back, while other people were telling him to promote us to purple. But he basically said: “No. I’m not giving them sh#t! They have to earn it” (laughs). Once I got promoted to purple, I stayed at that belt so long it actually tore to shreds – literally.
Few people make it to pro level in one sport, but you did it in both surfing and BJJ…
PH: Weird, right? My initial success in BJJ kind of freaked me out. But then I realized that I’d been able to take surfing as far as I did by constantly entering competitions, putting my name out there, getting sponsors and whatnot. I figured the roadmap to becoming a professional in BJJ was similar. So I went to all the smaller local tournaments to build up my experience, and I started racking up wins. Once I had the feeling I was on the right track, I made the commitment to travel to the bigger competitions, like the IBJJF Nationals and the Worlds – which levelled up my game and got me more exposure. Everything just flowed on from there. I also fell in love with the travelling aspect.
Let’s backtrack. How did you get into surfing?
PH: Well, I could swim before I learned to walk. My mom just tossed me in the water and played with me (laughs). I grew up in a surf town, only about four blocks from the beach. All my friends were surfers. The guy who lived next to me was a crazy merchant marine who’d travelled all over the world. He was also a big time surfer who taught us everything about the ocean. I can still look at the weather patterns and make better predictions than the weathermen. My crazy neighbor would wake us up at 4am and make us jump in the ocean, in the winter… He really groomed us into being surfers.
How did you get into wrestling?
PH: I did baseball for a few years but got very bored with it. I just hated it when people couldn’t pull their weight, you know? I love teams, but when I go out there to compete, I want to be the one responsible for winning or losing. Not some other idiot dropping the ball. Wrestling was the perfect outlet for that mentality. Also, I was a big fan of the WWF (laughs).
Was it hard for you to make the switch from wrestling to BJJ?
PH: Not really, because I’m a hands-on learner. You show me one thing, I’ll drill it to death. I’ll ask a million questions about a move and get super obsessed with it. And when I do something wrong, I figure it out how to do it the right way, and then drill that so much that I’ll never make the same mistake twice. It’s simple (laughs). From day one, I’ve tried just to let things happen and not get too caught up in my ego as a wrestler. When I first put on my gi, I got choked every which way up and down the mat. But I was fascinated. I embraced the gi from the start. You have to go beyond your wrestling ego. It’s the fastest way to learn.
How did you come up with that playful attitude?
PH: It has more to do with my personality. In the end of the day, I don’t really care what happens on the mat. I’m a pretty laid back person. I go with the flow.
That being said, you seem to compete like a madman.
PH: Yeah, I’ve been doing that for around six years straight. I’ve been all over the place, and last year I competed almost every other week. I’m never really satisfied with what I do and I always find something to improve. After Fight to Win in October I took a little bit of a mental break to reset. That helped me to see the bigger picture, and the adult jiu-jitsu version of me came out.
Can you elaborate on that?
PH: Before, I was just not doing the extra work that I needed to improve. Like regular strength and conditioning sessions, analyzing certain games, getting extra sleep, forcing myself to take that weekly 2 hour train ride into the city to train with Marcelo Garcia, or going down to Princeton to train with my friend Emily Kwok. All that stuff matters. I realized that only after taking a step back.
Tell us about your instructor Kurt Pellegrino.
PH: Kurt genuinely cares about people, not just the handful of talents. He wants everyone to succeed in the sport and in life in general. He made us all feel welcome and appreciated. Even though he yells at us when he feels we don’t live up to our potential (laughs). His jiu-jitsu is also crazy good. We rolled twice the first day we met. In roll number one he kind of toyed with me to see what I could do. The last round he turned it up a little bit, maybe to 40% intensity, and I got absolutely crushed. I thought: Damn, I do NOT want to know what Kurt at 100% feels like.
For you, what’s the most difficult thing about BJJ?
PH: It’s hard to say. Because of my dyslexia, I see a lot of things backwards. That also applies to jiu-jitsu, where I think I’ve learned to use my learning disability to my advantage. For instance, I quickly learned how to not get caught in chokes. I would put myself in bad spots and could visualize how the move was being tightened as it happened, so I would just instinctively move the opposite way. I’ve done that consistently since the moment I stepped on the mat. I start with the endgame and then look for ways to unravel myself. For some strange reason, that works well. It was purely a hands-on thing, nothing intellectual. I move backwards to go forwards – if that makes sense. So I’ve never really struggled with learning moves in BJJ, it just takes drilling time.
How do you reset your mind after training all day?
PH: I love the beach. When I’m not at the gym, that’s where you’ll find me. I just hang out there and rethink things. If I do too many privates or I get stressed out, the beach is my sanctuary. Also I like to play video games, I’m just a big nerd.
Has being a teacher helped your game?
PH: Definitely. Sometimes when you teach a sequence you’ve done a million times to new students, there will be happy accidents, as some students might try new things that I haven’t considered. Being a teacher has made me look at the game in a different way. It allows you to get a new perspective on your favorite moves, and it has taught me that everyone has something valuable to add to jiu-jitsu.
Which competition experience has taught you the most?
PH: I learn from all of ‘em, but one tournament stands out. Right before I got my brown belt, I had lost at the Europeans and it drove me nuts, because I realized I should’ve never lost that match. So at my first tournament as a brown belt, the Boston Open, I went in with guns blazing. No one even scored a point on me. I had a vision of standing on that first place podium and not going home without that gold medal. It was a turning point.
What keeps you coming back to jiu-jitsu?
PH: Blood, sweat, broken bones and tears. I think I would’ve stopped after tearing my meniscus three times. But at the end of the day I love the daily challenge. Getting after it with your teammates in competition, and enjoying the wider jiu-jitsu brotherhood around the world. It’s such a fantastic community to be a part of.
Pat Hemenway teaches and trains at www.pellegrinomma.com. Follow him on Instagram: @the__deep__patguard
Daniël Bertina is a journalist and instructor at www.carlsongracie.nl. Follow him on Instagram: @ashiorigami