For most of us just getting the motivation to go hit the gym is a struggle, but then there is Crys Davis. Crys trains in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Luta Livre, Muay Thai and Krav Maga, but with one main difference—she trains in a wheelchair. Crys has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare disease that weakens her connective tissues, making her especially susceptible to bruising, muscle and joint pain and fatigue, and frequent joint dislocations. Though Crys is extremely active, her disease makes it difficult for her to maintain muscle tone, and she falls frequently. Crys is not just physically active, either. She is a Biology Professor, Program Analyst for the American Red Cross, and a student earning her PhD in Applied Science and a Master’s in Public Health. Crys has been married to her husband, Jeremy, for 17 years, and has two teenage sons who also train in Jiu Jitsu.
You might think that due to the intense physicality of Jiu Jitsu, training would be impossible for Crys, but she applied her tenacity into finding an accessible gym and coaches willing to adapt training for her. Crys began searching for a supportive community when her husband switched careers into law enforcement, and she found that community in the martial arts. Many prospective trainers turned her down, not knowing how to adapt Jiu Jitsu for someone in a wheelchair. Coaches of adaptive Jiu Jitsu must be willing and creative enough to alter traditional training plans. According to Crys, “Adaptive Jiu Jitsu is a broad concept, but I think that at its core, it means making Jiu Jitsu accessible to anyone, regardless of the challenges, limitations of disability they might or might not have.”
Crys was discouraged to find out that many gyms were inaccessible to anyone in a wheelchair. These gyms lacked ramps coming into the building, or onto the mats, or even into the bathroom. Eventually she found Jiu Jitsu trainer Cody Nieto and Muay Thai/Luta Livre trainer Mike Hayes at Trinity Martial Arts in Pryor, Oklahoma. Despite the gym being 100 miles from her house, Crys trains there several times a week. Coach Mike Hayes even designed a system of harnesses and bungee cords to support Crys as she trains, reducing her injuries while allowing her to work on her stand up skills. This kind of training has even helped her with a common complication—falling out of her wheelchair. Now not only can Crys fall without too much injury, she can be ready to fight from the ground and from her chair.
Jiu Jitsu has especially helped Crys in having confidence in what her body can do, though, like all of us, she has also realized her limitations: “In some ways, I wasn’t nearly as limited as I thought. In other ways, I was way more limited than I ever thought possible.” Her joint flexibility can actually be an asset, but Crys has to discover her limits, too. As a one stripe white belt, Crys is at the beginning of her Jiu Jitsu journey, and like all of us in the beginning, she just wants to survive: “Nowadays, I am pretty much like any other white belt on the mat out there trying to learn and survive and not get squished along the way.”
But Crys is already a survivor. She is taking her disability and making it an asset. Despite her fatigue and pain, she still trains, while holding down two jobs and a family. Crys wants to enable others with limitations to try Jiu Jitsu and other martial arts. According to Crys’s research, adults with disabilities are about twice as likely to be victims of violence, with children being four times as likely. Not only has Jiu Jitsu taught her practical self defense techniques, she carries herself with more confidence: “I still look like an easy target, but I carry myself differently. . .Training helps me reduce my chances of becoming a victim.”
Crys would love to see Jiu Jitsu gyms pay attention to accessibility, and be willing to train those with disabilities or limitations. She advises that a coach does not have to have everything figured out in the beginning. They just need to be willing to brainstorm with their students: “Creativity and willingness to think outside the box are really helpful skills.”
In the short-term, Crys just wants to progress in the sport, and to learn something new every week. In the long-term, though, Crys wants to teach adaptive Jiu Jitsu, and to advocate for more accessibility throughout Jiu Jitsu. “Martial arts training changed my whole world. This is going to be a long journey, and I intend to enjoy the ride.”
About the Author:
Darisse Smith is a four stripe white belt and trains at Aloisio Silva Academy in Yucaipa, California. She is married with a 6 year old son who also trains in Jiu Jitsu. Darisse spent 7 years in the U.S. Army as a reconnaissance and attack helicopter pilot. She is a full-time student at UC-Irvine, earning her 2nd Bachelor’s Degree in Literary Journalism. Her favorite move is the kimura from closed guard.