WINTER GARDEN When a friend recommended Joshua Cope give Brazilian jiu-jitsu a try, the Oakland resident decided to do a little research.
A veteran of the U.S. Army who, in 2006, lost both legs and suffered a crushed right hand when a roadside bomb exploded in Iraq, Cope wanted to make sure taking up jiu-jitsu was something he could do.
“(Training at The 6 Levles) saved my life. ... This is home.”
— Joshua Cope
What he learned is that, because of its emphasis on grappling and fighting on the ground, jiu-jitsu is a platform that has worked well for amputees who are willing to give it a shot.
Still, when Cope arrived at The 6 Levels in Winter Garden — a gym specializing in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu — in late 2015, he wasn’t sure what to expect when he showed up for his first class.
At first, he hung back away from the action as the class began. That’s when Jon Burke, owner and lead trainer at The 6 Levels, looked his way and said, “What are you waiting for? Get out on the mat.”
More than a year later, Cope has tested from a white belt, to a blue belt, to his current ranking of a purple belt. He considers The 6 Levels his home away from home and says the gym, the craft of jiu-jitsu and the camaraderie he missed from his time in the service (but now gets to experience once again) has been a game-changer.
“It saved my life,” Cope said. “This is home.”
Burke — who had not met Cope prior to his arriving at his gym that day in 2015 — said he said the same thing to him as he would have said to anyone on their first day.
“An MMA gym can be very intimidating for anybody to walk into,” Burke said. “The last thing we want anybody to feel when they come in here is uncomfortable. Everybody gets treated like a regular student. … When they walk in we say, ‘Hey, get on the mat.’”
“(Jiu-jitsu) pretty much gave me a purpose again. It gave me the drive to get back out in the community and stay connected.”
— Joshua Cope
After two years of rehab following his injuries in Iraq, Cope and his family came to Oakland as the first recipients of a Home at Last home in 2008. Since then, he has stayed active by lifting weights three to four times a week. While the physical activity helped, it did not compare to the workouts he now gets attending The 6 Levels.
“Since I’ve started coming here, I’ve probably lost about 15 pounds,” Cope said. “It helps me transfer better and get around easier. It makes my quality of life all-around better.”
Being a part of the gym has helped Cope on a psychological level, as well. When he returned from rehab for alcoholism — a problem with which he has struggled since before his time in the military — the training at The 6 Levels was pivotal in his battle to stay sober.
“It helped to put my focus on this … it gave me a reason not to drink,” Cope said. “It pretty much gave me a purpose again. It gave me the drive to get back out in the community and stay connected.”
Cope has not had a drink since August 2015, and Burke said he rarely misses a class. When he does, it is usually for an appointment at the V.A.
“What is really cool about Josh is how disciplined he is,” Burke said. “He is very dedicated to learning the art.”
That dedication and enthusiasm has led to an expanded role for Cope at the gym.
“Josh is here every day, so we thought it would be nice to ask him if he would help us with our kids program,” Burke said. “He is committed to the gym, committed to the art, and he loves helping others with jiu-jitsu — there’s really no better fit than somebody like that.”
“(Joshua Cope) is committed to the gym, committed to the art, and he loves helping others with jiu-jitsu — there’s really no better fit than somebody like that.”
— Jon Burke, owner - The 6 Levels
Since getting involved with the gym’s kids program, Cope — who has kids of his own — said he has caught the coaching bug. He recently got to see many of the youngsters he trains bring home more than a dozen medals from a recent competition.
Cope also enjoys the kids’ honesty regarding his disability. Where adults may stare but not ask any questions, many of Cope’s young students are openly curious.
“The kids are honest with me — they pretty much just ask me where my legs went, and I tell them, ‘A bad guy got ‘em,’” Cope said. “Then we go on from there.”
At the gym, members who regularly attend the 9 a.m. weekday class with Cope see him as just another member — which is just how he wants it.
Still, that doesn’t mean that his presence isn’t motivating.
“Josh motivates a lot of people,” Burke said. “It’s pretty impressive to see — I know he motivates me.”
Going forward, Cope hopes to continue to move forward in his training and that his example will inspire other veterans who are either amputees or struggling with some form of PTSD, as well as growing awareness for wounded veterans who aren’t always seen in the community.
To other wounded warriors, Cope hopes they will hear the message: “If I can do it, then you can do it also.”
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].