Grapplers Retreat is a training camp that is located in the Mendocino Coast in Northern California. Unlike other camps, Grappler’s Retreat is a unique program that strives to bring the jiu-jitsu community together thus providing a memorable training experience for those in attendance. In this interview we talk with the head director of the program Alex Aftandilians has he tell us the details on what makes this camp special.
August 20-21, 2011
Russian Gulch, Mendocino, CA
BJJ Black Belt, Roger Gracie
How did the grappler’s retreat program get started?
Alex: Grappler’s Retreat started as a loose idea after I first visited the Mendocino coast, and became a reality after I met a small group of grapplers who had already been training here under the tutelage of Antonio Almeida, a Brazilian Top Team instructor. Antonio had moved to Mendocino from Brazil a few years before I made the move from Los Angeles. When I met Antonio and his group, I shared some of my ideas with him, and soon after we became partners is the establishment of Grappler’s Retreat.
Coming from Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to train under Gokor Chivichyan for 8 years and learn his unique style of grappling. I fell in love with the sport and with the style that Gokor taught me, and I always made an effort to apply my love of the art by cross-training with other grapplers whenever I vacationed or travelled elsewhere. A year of living abroad in South Africa allowed me the privilege of meeting and training with a great group of guys from the Gracie Barra academy in Cape Town. I vacationed in Hawaii and took the opportunity to train at Relson Gracie and BJ Penn’s schools. And traveling with Gokor to his east coast seminars and tournaments allowed me to meet and roll with grapplers from many other schools.
So how were you able to take your experiences and use it to create such a unique program?
Alex: When I sparred with grapplers from different schools and affiliations, I was often told that my style was so unique and different from what they were used to. Funny thing is that I often felt the same way about their style. These experiences helped me appreciate that grappling truly is art.
Grappling with new people from other schools, especially those who express their art at a high level, has always been a very cool experience for me. Unfortunately, the training culture in Los Angeles (and many other places I visited) seemed to be very closed off to the idea of non-competitive rolling among grapplers from different schools and affiliations. There seems to be a sort of insecurity and ego-driven “dojo-patriotism” that prevents a stronger sense of community among the very small population of people who practice our very unique martial art. Personally, I think it’s extremely unfortunate that this sort of divisive mentality is so prevalent in the grappling community–not only because the art has such great power to enrich our lives and foster great friendships if approached with an open mind, but also because some of the most interesting moments in training are offered through cross-training experiences with grapplers from different schools and styles.
Grappler’s Retreat was established as a meeting place for grapplers of all schools and affiliations. We are here to foster diverse and open training experiences that transcend what my friend Nic Gregoriades refers to as the ‘my style/school is best’ mentality. It is in this open environment, I believe, that grapplers can begin to recognize the most creative and artistic aspects of our sport.
What separates this program from other camps out there?
Alex: I can’t speak with much authority about other camps, but I believe that the core qualities of Grappler’s Retreat are extremely unique. First of all, we are far more interested in the quality of the experience rather than maximizing attendance or hosting a “star” grappler. We seek out world-class grapplers who have not only demonstrated exceptional ability as competitors, but also as teachers and as innovators. We limit the retreats to under 25 participants to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to work closely with the instructors and with each other. Moreover, in addition to each retreat’s guest instructor, Antonio and I are always present to assist beginners who have a hard time grasping the concepts as quickly as the more seasoned participants.
Moreover, our weekend retreats provide incredible training sessions that not only teach skills and techniques, but that also emphasize an open and creative approach to one’s lifelong grappling experience. It’s important to note that Grappler’s Retreat doesn’t focus on teaching a single style or training regimen. Instead, our approach is to host visiting instructors from around the world in an effort to share and celebrate various styles and creative forces that have shaped the grappling arts. We pride ourselves in not being an "assembly-line style" training camp that imposes a "one way suits all" mentality. On the contrary, our goal is to encourage diversity, cultivate creativity, and foster appreciation for other styles.
An additional quality that strongly sets us apart is our Mendocino coast location. Many people visiting for the first time are simply blown away by the beauty and nature of this remote stretch of northern California’s coast.
Are all affiliation academies welcome to attend this program?
Alex: Yes, our retreats are always open to grapplers from all schools and affiliations. To date, we have had grapplers from Gracie Barra, Gracie Jiu Jitsu, Brazilian Top Team, American Top Team, 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu, Hayastan Grappling Team, Amazonas Jiu Jitsu, Werneck Jiu Jitsu, and others.
How does the setting away from the city contribute to atmosphere of the program?
Alex: Our location is definitely one of the most compelling aspects of our grappling retreats. You have to come here to truly understand the quality of this place. The remoteness and incredible natural features of Mendocino’s rugged coastline offer a sort of tranquility that simply can’t be experienced in the city. I’ve been to some of the world’s most scenic natural places, and while all of them were absolutely incredible, none of them has ever made an impression on me like the Mendocino coast.
I think different people derive different experiences from grappling and nature. But for me (and for many of my close friends), there is a certain pure and primal aspect to be found in both. I think that time spent grappling and time spent in nature helps us shed ourselves of the ‘mental noise’ that, unfortunately, so many of us have become accustomed to living with. The Mendocino coast is an absolutely incredible contrast from your typical urban or suburban environment where most train. It offers a sort of solitude and connection with nature that, for many of us, fosters an inner-quietness and, accordingly, a greater connection with our martial art.
Besides the training is there anything else the programs offers to those in attendance?
Alex: Besides the training sessions, our retreats always include some social events that give the instructors and participants an opportunity to get to know one another off the mat. Of course, we capitalize on our Mendocino coast location… always spending lots of time outside, relaxing and barbecuing at some of the most incredible coastal sites, just minutes from the Grappler’s Retreat dojo. Our barbecues generally go on into the night as we get a bonfire going to keep everyone warm. Aside from just having a good time, our goal is to provide an environment where grapplers from different schools and affiliations can get to know one another and hopefully maintain training relationships into the future.
Roger Gracie black belt Nic Gregoriades is the instructor for this years retreat. Can you tell us about your experience with Nic and why he was chosen to teach for this program ?
Alex: I first met Nic in Cape Town, South Africa, and later became good friends with him as he would travel to Los Angeles to compete and coach at the BJJ Mundials. Nic is one of the pioneers of grappling and jiu jitsu in South Africa. After contributing immensely to the growth of the sport in his home country, he later moved to the UK to train under Roger Gracie, and eventually became the first person to be awarded the Black Belt from Roger. A couple years ago, Nic also founded the Jiu Jitsu Brotherhood, a movement and a training resource that transcends the ‘ my school/team is best’ mentality’– it reflects many of the values also embodied by Grappler’s Retreat.
While Nic has a very impressive competition record, he was chosen to teach at Grappler’s Retreat more so because of his skill as a teacher. There are many great champion competitors, but not all of them are good teachers. Nic, however, has excelled as a fighter and as an instructor. I am most impressed by Nic’s ability to convey concepts and principles of movement, rather than simply showing techniques. Moreover, his curriculum is always well thought-out and organized, and my past experience watching Nic teach has proven to me that he truly cares about his students. Those signing up for the retreat can anticipate an incredible training weekend with Nic. Techniques and strategies will certainly be refined through his teachings, but I think that the most interesting thing Nic will offer attendees is his unique way of conceptualizing and explaining the movements that manifest his experience of Jiu Jitsu.
After it is all set and down, what can people take away from grappler’s retreat?
Alex: On the most basic level, I expect everyone (including myself) to become a stronger, more skilled, and smarter grappler after attending the retreat. More importantly, though, I believe that those attending the retreat will have an enormous opportunity to expand their understanding of different grappling styles and of distinct ways of thinking about jiu jitsu and ultimately to realize a higher level of creativity that is contained within themselves and within the art. I encourage attendees to come with an open mind and with an open heart, to train with and get to know as many other attendees as possible, and to take initiative to learn as much as they can from Nic, Antonio, myself, and from all the other participants.
Well that wraps things up, do you any final words you would like to tell the viewers out there?
Alex: Thank you for taking an interest in what we’re doing. If you’re ever on the Mendocino coast, please feel free to contact me through our website. There is a small group of us always training, and visitors are welcome and encouraged to join us any time.