At 25, Coquitlam’s Giacomo Zanini sets the bar as one of Canada’s leading Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioners, but being at the top of his game on home turf isn’t enough for the accomplished athlete: Zanini has plans to be Canada’s only qualifying black belt at the World Jiu Jitsu Championships in Long Beach, California this May.
Jiu jitsu, originally derived from judo and developed by both Japanese and Brazilian martial artists in the early 1900s, is a self-defense system of grappling and ground fighting that is slowly but surely gaining popularity in North America, especially in light of popular mixed martial arts leagues—like everyone’s favourite—the UFC.
As the youngest-ever athlete of the San Diego-based Ribeiro Jiu Jitsu school to be promoted to black belt, Zanini’s journey to becoming one of the country’s most technical competitors and competent instructors has been driven by one thought: to be the best in his division, in the world.
“I was a chubby kid, spoiled, always complaining and whining,” remembers Zanini of his 10-year-old, pre-jiu jitsu self.
Born and raised in Torres, Brazil, Zanini’s first encounter with the sport happened when his older brother took him to the town’s first jiu jitsu gym, or ‘dojo’ (Japanese for ‘place of the way’).
After just a short time of consistent training, Zanini began to notice changes to his body, and not in the way one might expect. While he did lose weight and gain strength, his passion for jiu jitsu was made stronger by more than just the physical side effects.
The discipline with which Zanini approached the martial art began to translate to situations outside of the dojo: he remembers becoming more confident, and “going from being a kid with low self esteem to one that won state championships”.
“I also became much more aware of my body. This was one of the things that really seduced me about jiu jitsu: it had a special ability of making people more aware of themselves, more aware of their bodies, and less egocentric,” says Zanini.
“I noticed that the higher belts, the more experienced masters, were all very calm people. I wanted to be like those masters, who were able to achieve such an evolution in their personal lives.”
Zanini’s first big accomplishment came when he placed third and won the bronze medal in his division as a blue belt at the World Jiu Jitsu Championships at just 15 years of age.
“From that point, I decided I wanted to one day compete at the world championships as a black belt,” says Zanini.
“I started to really understand what jiu jitsu was doing to my life, and I wanted to travel and share that experience and the way it improved my life with other people.”
At 17, Zanini moved to San Diego, where he trained at the world-renowned University of Jiu Jitsu, founded by Brazilian brothers Saulo and Xande Ribeiro, who claim to be the most decorated family in the sport.
Now, after moving to the lower mainland just three years ago and opening a gym of his own, Zanini is prepping for the tournament of a lifetime: his first opportunity to compete as a black belt against the world’s best.
But being in a country where the sport has yet to explode has presented its own set of challenges to the hopeful contender.
“Jiu jitsu is very underdeveloped in Canada. It’s still growing but it was very hard for me to find places to train and to really prepare myself,” says Zanini, who trains with his students in light of the lack of advanced practitioners in the area.
“I’ve found that it’s been a great challenge to take myself through this, to get out of my comfort zone, so even though I just train with my students, I’m still working towards qualifying.”
Meeting the requirements to qualify for the event is an arduous process, and has required Zanini to travel halfway around the world to obtain the necessary points.
After winning two gold medals in two weeks at a tournament in Calgary and another in Gothenburg, Sweden, Zanini is currently in Japan waiting to compete at the Nagoya International Open. If he succeeds in his weight class, he’ll have enough points to compete in May.
His students, made up of men and women of all age groups, have nothing but positive things to say about his ability as an instructor, and are anxious to see their sensei come home with some hardware.
Balancing life between teaching, competing, and fatherhood is paying off; although he is on the brink of meeting one of the goals he set for himself at 15, he can rest assured that the one to instill the principles of jiu jitsu into other people has already been met.