The Jiu Jitsu Lifestyle: Connection Rio BJJ Hostel

Published on by Nico Ball

Photos by Nico Ball

Most people that know me are accustomed to my random acts of madness, so it shouldn’t have come as much as surprise to them when, two years ago, I decided to pack up and move to Brazil. It was a spur of the moment decision that I made based on a one lined piece of advice given to me via Facebook from Kyra Gracie, the only female face I was familiar with from the BJJ world at the time.

“Try Connection Rio”, she wrote.

A quick google search produced information on a BJJ hostel located in Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, a couple of blocks away from a local BJJ gym. I contacted the owner, Dennis Asche, paid for 3 months of training and living accommodations, and off I went to train in Rio, the Mecca of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with only a couple grand in the bank.

I sacrificed the comforts of a middle class house in Pentagon City and the financial security of a full time teaching job in exchange for a bed in a common room that housed up to five other guys and a myriad of pungent kimonos. I slept in a bunk bed above one of the sponsored athletes, a quiet English blue belt that was there for a 6-month stay. He once choked me out with both hands tucked in his belt before quietly returning home to England one sunny afternoon. He was replaced by an even quieter Irish dude that rarely left the dorm room.  That was life at Connection Rio, a never-ending procession of Jiu Jitsu enthusiasts from all over the world. After awhile you lose count of the different countries and nationalities, instead you remember the stories. The blue belt that couldn’t find the front door, the purple belt giving private lessons in a superman pijamas, and the wrestlers that would run around in singlets all served as my indoctrination into the Jiu Jitsu culture. 

Initially, I knew nothing about the Arte Sauve and much less about the Portuguese language, so the Connection Rio BJJ Hostel served as a buffer zone between my posh American upbringing and the less than luxurious lifestyle of a Jiu Jitsu nomad. It was a safe place where slowly but surely, through my interactions with Jiu Jiteiros from around the world, I was able to get a grasp on both the Brazilian culture and their beloved sport. The rote repetition inherent in Jiu Jitsu instruction served as my foundation in Portuguese language. Everyday I was fed the basic white belt diet of armbars, triangles, and kimuras, but instead of just absorbing technique, I had to absorb the vocabulary along with it. Jiu Jitsu, in combination with long hours on Youtube and endless struggles with disgruntled waitresses, helped me master the Portuguese language within a few months. My mastery of the native tongue, or at least my die-hard efforts, earned me acceptance amongst Brazilians both on and off the mats and made my life a lot easier further down the line.

One of the best parts about Connection Rio was the laid back atmosphere. In the morning, I’d would roll out of bed 15 minutes before training, grab water, don my kimono, and stroll out of the house still wiping signs of sleep from my eyes.

Training at eight in the morning is entirely too early, but considering the gym is less than a 5 minute walk away and there were no other obligations except for evening training, I couldn’t complain too much.

For my first 3 months in Brazil all I did was train, eat fruit, rest, and train some more. Unlike living in D.C., life in Rio is much more laid back. Rest time in between training sessions was spent lounging on the mats talking about Jiu Jitsu or finding a partner and drilling more Jiu Jitsu. Some people sat around and watched Jiu Jitsu, while the more intellectual crowd grabbed some magazines and read about Jiu Jitsu.  Even the less serious guests more inclined to party would come home hung over and try to administer impromptu Jiu Jitsu seminars.

Everyone was united by a love of the sport and it was all we ever talked about.

Ok, sometimes we talked about the beach.

Another perk of Connection Rio is that it’s located in the quiet, multimillion-dollar neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca, about a 20-minute walk from the original Gracie Barra and the infamous PePe beach. Pedra da Gavea, one of the world’s largest monolithique rock formations, separates Barra from the more densely populated neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema. A lot of crazy black belts like to hike up Pedra with kimonos in tow so that they can take pictures at the top. I went up once when I first arrived and couldn’t imagine going back hauling a kimono on my back! It is however, a most see attraction, and well worth the few hours required to hike up to the top.

Connection Rio offers discounted prices at a nearby gym for anyone looking for a quick and easy place to train but they also have information on local gyms throughout Rio. One of the best places to train in Rio, however, is in the living room with the owner Dennis Ache. A couple of days a week, when crazy Carioca traffic is permitting, Dennis comes over to the hostel to teach a free class for the guests. He also tries to track down any big names that might be passing through Rio and bring them in for in-house seminars.

Only at Connection Rio will you find people like Roberto Leitao and Mario Sperry coming in and laying down some knowledge for about $25 dollars and then kicking it by the pool for a barbeque.

I once entertained the idea of being the first female Connection Rio sponsored athlete, which would afford me free accommodations and some great gear hookups from Senki kimonos. Instead I was hit with one of my sudden bursts of madness. After 3 months of lounging in hammocks and strolling to the beach with fellow gringos, I had to accept that fact that unlike most people, I was not in Rio for vacation. I decided to abandon my bed in the common room, get a job teaching English, and rent my own place in the Cantagalo favela, closer to where I was training with Fernando Terere.

It’s been over two years since I moved out of the Connection Rio BJJ Hostel, but they still haven’t gotten rid of me! I often pop up on Fridays to get a massage (yes that’s right they have a massage therapist come over and give relaxing massages under the coconut trees) or on Saturdays to meet up with some fellow English speakers to watch the UFC fights on Combat, a local TV network that airs all the fights for free. Its also my go to gringo refuge for when I want to find someone to drill new techniques or maybe just to go grab a caipirinha at a close by bar. 

There are a lot of hostels in Rio, but there is only one BJJ Hostel. Connection Rio may not be a 5 star, beachside hotel, but it provides a unique experience that you won’t find when you book off AirBnB. They advertise about “living the dream”, and they were dead on.

To my delight, I met Kyra Gracie at a seminar two weeks after arriving in Rio and now we often run into each other on the street. She wasn’t the only person I met that left me somewhat star struck either. Shortly after attending a Connection Rio BJJ Hostel organized academy visit, I entered the ranks of the Nova Uniao professional MMA team and started training with Claudinha Gadelha, Jose Aldo, Yan Cabral, and Renan Barao (I have since moved on to train with Jessica Andrade at PRVT). In the U.S. you might be able to train at some of the top facilities, but its very hard to get in sparring time with some of the top NAMES in the sport. In Rio, on the other hand, its hard to walk around without bumping into some a major name in MMA or Jiu Jitsu. Jose Aldo is always at local soccer games, Milton Viera likes to spend afternoons on Ipanema beach with his kids, and the Noguiera brothers own a kiosk in Barra that serves some of the best burgers on Pepe beach.

A lot of people ask me how I did it. Courage was imperative, but Connection Rio was undoubtedly the decisive factor that gave me the safety and security to leave everything and chase my wildest dreams.

Check out my blog for more stories or advice about living and training in Rio.