TRURO - Jake MacKenzie's love for jiu-jitsu is unlimited and unwavering.
The 27-year-old Truro native has spent a lifetime giving himself to the sport. Now, as if reciprocating that passion, jiu-jitsu is giving back. MacKenzie recently returned home for the holidays after collecting medals in all but three of the 22 tournaments he competed in while living in the Brazilian capital of Rio de Janeiro - the world hotbed for the sport - for the past six months. The haul included 12 gold.
"I think this was probably my best year in Brazil as a black belt," MacKenzie said. "I had a lot of good wins. A lot of the guys I had problems with before or had beaten me before, I had a lot of wins against those guys so it felt really good this year overall."
It was the payoff MacKenzie had been searching for since he started living and training in Brazil for six-month periods 10 years ago. Competing for GFTeam, one of the world's powerhouse jiu-jitsu squads, MacKenzie lives in the team gym and sleeps either in a small room with 12 other athletes or on the training mats at night, where it's not uncommon for a cockroach to crawl past. He trains all day and cleans the gym each morning and night as part of his agreement to stay there rent-free. And, oh yeah, the club is located in a part of Rio de Janiero so rough, not even guys as tough as he is walk alone at night.
"I love all of that," MacKenzie, the first non-Brazilian to ever become a GFTeam member, said. "I know I'm in the gym all day and I'm training with some of the toughest guys in the world and it's a big confidence booster for sure."
MacKenzie laid claim to the Brazilian national title in his first year in the 181-pound weight division and helped GFTeam's A squad to its record fifth consecutive championship. He also recorded second-place finishes in some of the globe's most prestigious tournaments; the world, South American and Pan American championships. He posted 4-1 records at both the world and South American events and went 3-1 at the Pan Am event.
"At first I was kind of upset about that," MacKenzie, now fluent in Portugese, said. "I was like, ‘Man I lost in the final in all three,' but the way I look at it now is I didn't get to the final of those tournaments last year. This year the goal is to win those."
On top of training all day every day, MacKenzie competed at a tournament almost every weekend, sometimes driving up to 12 hours to events in vehicles packed to the brim with athletes and equipment bags.
The rigourous schedule made coming home for the holidays a welcome thought for MacKenzie, who used the time to refresh both his mind and body and catch up with his family, whom he hasn't seen since his last six-day visit in June.
"It was nice to recharge the batteries," he said. "Now I'm ready to train."
MacKenzie has already left for Europe to run clinics in England, Germany, France and Switzerland, where he'll train students in the ways he's learned from GFTeam. Then, he'll head for Colorado to do the same at a club affiliated with his squad while also competing at several events across the U.S.
In June, MacKenzie plans to be back in Rio where in spite of being a ‘gringo' he's become somewhat of a celebrity, being featured on sports networks and instructional DVDs.
"I really enjoy being in Brazil, I like the culture there," he said.
He doesn't get caught up in the beautiful beaches and picturesque mountains ,which surround the city of about 13 million. MacKenzie didn't get this far without the support of businesses like Inglis Jewellers, his parents and being focused and training hard at his inner city club, about an hour bus ride from the coast.
"If you go to the nicer spots where the gym is by the beach you don't have people training all day because they've got the beach and the mountains," he said. "There's no beach or nothing nice where we are, we just want to fight all day long. That's what it's all about."