If you met Sam Spiegelman you would most likely think he’s a normal well-adjusted person. He’s 32 years old, has a degree, played football in college, is married, teaches martial arts for a living, and lives right outside of Chicago. However, what you wouldn’t know is that Sam also has a story to tell. Brazilian Jiu-jitsu can mean a lot of things to people. A means of keeping in shape, making a living, stress reliever and so on. Sam’s story is a testament to all these things but it also is a testament to the power of belief and the amazing effect Jiu-jitsu can have on people’s lives.
“My junior year in college my dad all of sudden out of the blue passed, I played football in college, I was pretty active, and this happened. I was dealing with that for my junior year. My senior year, almost a year to the day, my mom had a heart attack.” Sam says. In the span of a year his life had dramatically changed from being a college kid with no worries to having his life flipped upside down. Now dealing with the passing of one parent and another one who was very sick, he searched for something that could help him cope with the situation life had given him. “I needed something to fill the void…to help keep me going. I started first with Judo then Jiu-Jitsu and I never look back. Jiu-jitsu is basically what saved me like I know people say that but legitimately it was what got me through the days. It basically gave me time to be myself. No one was asking me how I was feeling? Are you alright? I got to train Jiu-Jitsu and it wasn’t therapy time, we were all there for the right reasons.”
Looking back on it now, Sam describes dealing with the passing of his mother and aftermath that ensued as some of the hardest times of his life and how Jiu-jitsu saved him. “It helped get me through a pretty good hunk of my life. It was 3-4 year ordeal between when she wound up passing, funerals and she didn’t have a will, I was going through court with probate, lawyers, and phone calls. I used to dread checking my phone, coming home and checking the mailbox. At the Jiu-Jitsu gym, it all went away. “During this 3-4 year period Sam’s mom condition grew worst. “The heart attack happened, the doctor said she would have to be dialysis, the dialysis treatments were maybe a year or two, then she broke her hip at home, she fell in the bathroom. So then she had to have hip surgery which for older people is really bad. From there they gave her dialysis in the hospital for about a month then to a rehabilitation center. That was basically it. She never came home. She kept getting worst and worst. She wasn’t mobile, she couldn’t even walk. I remember getting a call; she was non-responsive so they took her to the hospital. For lack of a better term she began to lose it. She would call saying, “I’ve been kidnapped come and get me.”
Shortly after Sam’s mother would pass away. This would set into motion a multitude of problems with insurance, medical bills and probate. But he also began to become more and more involved with martial arts to help give himself an outlet as he describes. “People always told me you’re not going to feel anything for a few years after and this is probably why. So we didn’t have will. my mom was a public school teacher, so first her friends were like, “You have to go to the board and try to get her pension.” and the board wouldn’t give us her pension because they said we were over 18 so I was in a fight with the Chicago Board to get her pension which I never got to tell you the truth. That was stressful on a very different level where every time I would have to talk to somebody it would remind me of it. Every time the phone would ring it would remind me of it. It would remind me of that call I got at two in the morning that changed everything.” Dealing with this along with probate due to his mother not having a will and medical bills, Sam felt he still needed to get to the gym somehow. “I was like no matter what, I need to get to the gym. I just scheduled everything else around that. I know most people would do it the other way but the days I couldn’t train I was agitated, I was miserable. You know how you feel really on edge when you’re stressed? When I would I go to the gym, it would just go away. “
Having to support himself and resolve all of the issues that his parents passing left, Sam was working but was still unfulfilled. “I felt like I was working because I had to, I would just take jobs. I had friends that would get me in. I worked at the Board of Trade, which just piled on the stress.” After going back and forth between jobs, things finally started to look up. “I used to get off really early so I would come into the gym in the afternoon class, he (Mark, head instructor) started to ask me to teach a little bit. At that point I was a three or four stripe blue belt and I would teach some beginner classes. Then I started teaching kids. Then the economy crashed so I was like ok this gives me a good reason to get out. So Mark was like do you want to just teach?” It was a long time coming for Sam who throughout his trials and tribulations always managed to stick with Jiu-Jitsu as it was therapeutic for him and ultimately saved his life. Something he tries to pass onto his students now as a teacher. “For me I didn’t just pick up Jiu-Jitsu easy I had to figure out how my mind works. Everybody learns a little different and there’s no right or wrong. Some people need to hear it, some people need to see it, some people need to do it. So I take that with my life experiences, where I’m like, “Listen this is hard. Jiu-Jitsu is hard. It’s not the fact that jiu Jitsu is hard. What’s more important is the fact that Jiu-Jitsu is hard and you come back tomorrow. “ Talking with Sam it seems as though he found his calling in being not just a teacher but a guide for others to help deal with difficult times in their life and showing how transcendent Jiu-Jitsu can be in that regard. “I tell people that all the time, learn from what you went through in life, whether your a police officer an accountant, those same skills will translate.”
Coming back to the present, Sam is now a teacher, he teaches Jiu-Jitsu for a living but also tries to share his experiences with people and offer any sort of guidance he can. “I have this saying people say sometimes, “It’s not supposed to be easy, going through something like that is not supposed to be easy. But when you get through it changes who you are… some people say what happens to you in life will shape who you are and that’s true but I think it’s more about how you react to those experiences.” He says one of his biggest motivating factors is seeing what his parents went thru for him and his sibling and what they went through put things into perspective. “They say going through one dialysis treatment is the equivalent of running a marathon and my mom did it 3 days a week. That’s hard. What I’m doing isn’t hard…. Stuff is going to happen that’s life there’s going to be ups, there’s going to be downs. It’s how you get through that that’s going to make or break you. Are you going to choose to lie down and just let it win, let life win?”
As someone who was a “typical college kid” as he puts it to dealing with the death of both of his parents and then the individual solely responsible for everything his parents left behind to now the 32 year old man whose made a life out of jiu Jitsu he stresses how impactful the art can be and what it has taught him about life. “Something’s happen for a reason you know and I don’t know why. I struggled with that for a long time you know why did that happen and I honestly believe I wouldn’t be the person I am if it didn’t happen. It taught me more about myself then I could have imagined and I don’t wish that upon anybody… but you can learn a lot from jiu Jitsu more than people realize. I think for me Jiu-Jitsu was such a humbling experience… yes it’s a sport it’s a martial art to a lot people but people don’t look at the other side of it. Like what is it actually doing for you? I see people come into the gym they have zero confidence no coordination… people miss that, you didn’t stop and you got better. That right there that’s so powerful that people just miss it. People look at Jiu-Jitsu as I’m gonna compete, I’m a competitor, I’m gonna come in here for a workout and it’s so much more than that. I don’t want to sound cliché but it truly is. It makes you a better person…”
As our interview came to a close I asked Sam, “If your parents saw what your relationship with Jiu-Jitsu has become what do you think they would think or say?” He replied, “They would be really proud, my parents were really cool in that aspect they never forced me to do anything… I think about that sometimes before I compete that their watching me. They’re looking down and they like it. Like I said my mom was a teacher and in a sense I’m a teacher and I think they would be proud. I think they would be proud that I made it not, that I made it big time or anything but I’m still going. I’m doing something I love and I got through it.”