By Carol Brzozowski
City & Shore Magazine
By day, Roberto Santiago is the community engagement and communications officer for Florida Atlantic University’s Broward campuses.
After work he can be found on a mat at John Wai Martial Arts in Plantation, where he tries to submit his opponent “through numerous and creative arm locks, leg locks and strangulation submission holds” in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) training.
Christina Mastrantonio of Fort Lauderdale spent years driving her son Dylan to the facility before eventually joining him in BJJ training. He’s a black belt; she’s a blue belt.
“I never thought I’d do something like BJJ at this time in my life,” says Mastrantonio, 56. “For all of the bruises, cuts, mat burns, sprains and fatigued muscles, it’s a lot of fun.”
BJJ is attracting people over 50 seeking a way to stay healthy, fit and young, says John Wai, 52, owner of John Wai Martial Arts, one of many South Florida martial arts schools offering the discipline. It also promotes decision-making under stress, he adds.
Mastrantonio credits BJJ for strength, flexibility, speed and endurance conditioning as well as discharging energy, releasing stress and promoting healthy habits.
Santiago, 54, started training in karate and boxing during the Bruce Lee martial arts craze in the 1970s.
Two years ago, he “got over my germaphobia of close contact grappling on a mat with other sweaty individuals and started BJJ training,” says Santiago, wearing a gi (BJJ training uniform) manufactured by Old Man Jiu Jitsu.
In BJJ, “there is no kicking, jumping or punching to the head,” says Santiago, who after having had bursitis, arthritis and knee surgeries is no longer interested in full-contact martial arts.
BJJ “is a very practical form of self-defense and a tremendous physical workout,” he says. “It is like a chess game on the mat because you figure out how to submit your opponent by using technique.” He’s also learned how to relax.
“You lose if you rely on anger and strength, but win if you rely on calmness and technique,” he adds.
In January, Mastrantonio competed locally for the first time. Though losing all three matches, she was pleased to challenge herself and experience competition.
The International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation offers age- and gender-based Masters’ competitions.
There is no pressure to advance, says Santiago, a white belt for two years.
“It’s not about the belt I have around my waist,” he says. “It’s about the skill level I’ve developed.”
PHOTO by Candace West: Students Roberto Santiago, Christina Mastrantonio and instructor and owner John Wai.