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A fighting chance | Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
As the world watches Brazil host the dazzling spectacle of the World Cup, Luciano Mariano is content to train indoors, on mats, four hours every day, more than 6,000 miles away.
Mariano loves soccer, but doesn’t mind missing the expensive commotion. He is living his dream in America.
“I fought many championships in Rio de Janeiro and one in Sao Paulo, but my dream was to fight one day in the United States because for many it’s an impossible dream,” said Mariano through a translator in an email interview.
Mariano, 27, is 1.6 meters tall and 51 kilograms. That’s about 5 foot 6 inches tall and 112 pounds. In jiujitsu, he competes as a blue belt in the rooster weight division. Thanks to a grant and a nonprofit organization, Mariano arrived on his first ever plane flight at SeaTac airport on May 22 to compete in the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation World Championships, which were held in Long Beach, Cali. on May 29.
There, Mariano saw fighters in person that he’d previously only viewed in magazines. It was a long way from selling fruit and vegetables on the street with his father and training with his Top Brother team in Brazil.
And though the journey to Mariano’s dream of fighting in America is complex, it all started with Elena Stowell and the Carly Stowell Foundation.
The foundation is built on Elena’s heavy heart, started by she and her husband after the sudden death of their daughter, Carly, in April 2007. Carly, a talented athlete and musician, was a freshman at Kentlake High School and participating in a club basketball trip in North Carolina when she suffered a fatal heart arrhythmia.
The mourning parents formed the Foundation shortly after the death, with the goal to provide affordable and accessible opportunities in sports and music to area youth.
Elena found her own peace in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It’s her sport of choice and “part of my journey toward healing.” She opened a Jiu-Jitsu branch in the foundation two years ago, starting a donation program to help the favela — a.k.a. slum — kids in Brazil who participate in the sport.
Elena secured a $1,500 grant from the Challenged Athlete Foundation to pay for Mariano’s travel, while her own foundation picked up the other expenses.
Elena wasn’t exactly sure how to handle the adventure and told the airline agents that Mariano may need some assistance because he didn’t speak English and was a double-arm amputee. At the exit area of the gate, she saw her guest being escorted in a wheelchair.
“Apparently most people requesting ‘special assistance’ receive this courtesy,” Elena wrote in a blog post on her website, elena-stowell.com. “I think he was embarrassed. I later learned that someone on the plane tried to feed him, thinking he couldn’t do that himself. I’m glad he had a good laugh over it and didn’t start his trip off thinking Americans are helpful, but presumptuous and maybe a little dumb.”
Mariano lost his hands at 3 months old, after being placed in the care of his drunken grandfather who inadvertently knocked a candle over and fled the burning house while Mariano burned in his crib.
Prosthetics are not an option in the impoverished neighborhood of Japeri, located in Rio de Janeiro, where Mariano was born and lives. Thus, he’s never known hands and adapts as such. Mariano uses a fork and toothbrush, can write and use a computer keyboard. Most of his free time is spent on “Faceebookee,” Elena said, where he keeps family and friends updated on his trip.
His family and friends cried during the first conversation through FaceTime and Skype.
“This is gigantic for the whole neighborhood,” Elena said. “He’s not just his own dream, but living all of their dreams.”
Despite some communication lapses, Mariano has helped solidify a healthy dose of perspective in Elena’s life.
A few days before the trip, Mariano purchased an electronic tablet for taking pictures in America. But the portable computer never made it far, as Mariano was robbed at gunpoint on the way home with his girlfriend.
James Foster, a Jiu-Jitsu coach at Foster Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Kent where Mariano is training, gave Mariano a new tablet as a present.
As much as Mariano enjoys watching soccer on TV, and hopes Brazil does well in the tournament, he also knows that many people in his home are upset that the games distract from important issues in Brazil.
Driving by the suburban houses in Kent, Mariano commented to Elena about the beauty of the area.
“I always watch American films in Brazil and always saw the houses and cities but never imagined to see in person,” he said through email translation. “All different and beautiful.”
Mariano’s favorite move on the mat is the leg triangle — a submission that involves choking the opponent with his legs. During his first training, he showed off a move where he grabs the tail of his opponent’s Gi uniform with one foot, tosses it to the other foot behind his opponent’s back, and drags the individual down to the mat. It’s worth three points.
“Everybody watched like a deer in headlights,” Elena said. “It’s amazing.”
Mariano speaks Portuguese and very little English, other than words such as “thank you” and “OK.” Mariano said his disability has led many to doubt his abilities, but Jiu-Jitsu gives him the ability to fight and “made me overcome the fear” and “to see I don’t have disability in my life.”
Elena said arm amputees are extremely uncommon and Mariano became a celebrity of sorts at the world championships.
Though he feels he could have done better at the competition, Mariano looks for the positive.
“I’m gonna keep on trying,” Mariano said, translated through Elena.
“He didn’t get submitted and that’s a victory,” Elena added.
Mariano returns home on July 4. Until then he will keep training, sightsee in San Francisco and participate at a tournament in Santa Cruz where he will have at least one match. There may be a roller coaster or two mixed in, Elena said, though that may be superfluous.
“Training and access to the internet is all he needs,” Elena said.