The Passion and Struggle: Rich Strehle’s Jiujitsu Journey
The motivations of an elite athlete are not difficult to comprehend. Fame, money, a desire to the be the best and others all drive top level athletes. Even in the face of consequences and costs both monetary and otherwise, those profound benefits exist, making the sport seemingly worthwhile.
Brazilian Jiujitsu, a grappling martial art involving submission holds, has many more costs associated with it than the typical sport. Even for casual practitioners, there are fairly high monetary costs, constant soreness, injuries and constant skepticism from friends, family, coworkers, etc.
Rich Strehle has been training in Brazilian Jiujitsu for close to 15 years, receiving his black belt earlier this year. He is married and has a full time job as a commercial insurance underwriter. Training is just part of his life. He has no illusions of becoming a world champion or famous instructor; he just endures and progresses.
Strehle’s began his training in 2001 when Brazilian Jiujitsu gyms were less common and there was more of a no holds barred fighting connotation associated with the sport. Rather than being able to simply sign up at a local gym, he began in an abandoned wrestling room at his college.
“The first time I did jiujitsu was when I bumped into two dudes in college that showed choke holds,” Strehle said. “We were all fighting nerds and just starting trying techniques.”
His initial interest was not from a fascination with violence, rather, he was taken in by the clinical ability of grapplers to systematically defeat an opponent.
“Guys like Mark Coleman and Don Frye fascinated me because, unlike other guys, they never fell into a fight or flight response,” Strehle said. “Everyone was a math problem that they had solved a million times before.”
The analytic mindset that Strehle admired has served him well in maintaining a consistent training schedule. His instructor, Renzo Gracie black belt, Jamie Cruz, sees how his student’s regimentation has led to regularity in training.
“He (Strehle) has laid out his entire day to me before step by step,” Cruz said. “His jiujitsu days are not an option to him, they are just part of the schedule.”
While Strehle now has his training schedule like clockwork, that was not always the case. Several years ago, after tearing his ACL and growing accustomed to a more sedentary lifestyle, Strehle had gotten to a point where he was barely training.
“I had a period of over a year to two where my training frequency was so low that I had basically quit,” Strehle said. “I was on the cusp of the next level at work and felt that I had bigger fish to fry. I fell out of the habit of training and even didn’t train when I had free time because I enjoyed lazy stuff like cigars and video games. I forgot how much I loved it.”
While his job had been one of his biggest distractions during his training lull, ironically, it was a change at work that gave him the opportunity to recapture his passion. Initially, his new position was accompanied with a temporarily diminished workload, paving the way for his re commitment.
“I changed jobs within my company and there wasn’t much to do no matter how hard I worked,” Strehle said. “I couldn’t be consumed by work, so I could go back to jiujtisu. Once I crossed that barrier, I have been back in and haven’t looked back.”
While Strehle may have had doubts about his return during his extended break, Tom Hales, Strehle’s training partner for roughly 7 years never doubted. Strehles love for the sport and drive for improvement made it clear that he would always return.
“I never thought about his breaks too much because whenever he wasn’t around, I always knew he would be back” Hales said.
Now that Strehle’s commitment is unshakeable, the only issue with his training is the people in his life that question why he continues with a pursuit that is costly and moderately dangerous. Just this year, Strehle has suffered an orbital blowout and a deep gash on his lip that are noticeable enough to prompt suspicion.
“Most people that question me usually aren’t informed or interested in learning about what jiujitsu is,” Strehle said. “At work, its a sterile environment where people are going to question the guy with the bruise or cut on his face. Many cling to the most interesting narrative, which is that I’m doing cage fighting.”
Hales has received similar skepticism from people in his life who believe that jiujitsu is a violent pursuit that is only fit for the young and reckless. Hales largely dismisses their comments as he doesn’t feel it is necessary to justify his actions.
“Most people don’t really understand what jiujitsu is,” Hales said. “They think you are getting into a cage to fight no holds barred. I don’t really take it too seriously because they don’t get it. At this point, I don’t feel like I need to explain myself to people.
Strehle takes a similar approach to Hales when he is met with disbelief for his choice of hobby.
“If its someone that is going to be interested enough in listening, I will respond with an explanation but if its someone who isn’t open minded I give the excuse, look I’m a heavy guy that works in a sedentary job,” Strehle said.
Ultimately, Strehle comes back week after week because of the challenge of progressing in his technique and competing with his training partners. Cruz sees the desire in his student that will motivate his lifelong journey.
“He is so talented but he knows that when he comes to class it is never going to be easy,” Cruz said. “He wants that challenge of learning and competing with guys that will challenge him.”
No matter what, Strehle will be training week after week, pursuing that challenge.
“It means a lot to mean,”Strehle said. “Come hell or high water, I will be training 3 days a week until I physically can’t anymore.”