‘Do what you want’: Blind man’s love of jiu jitsu makes inclusion easier for others

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Nick Hoekstra, top, and Ron May practice a jui-jitsui move at Rivers Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. Hoekstra, who is blind, is a purple belt.

When opponents grapple with Nick Hoekstra in jiu jitsu they tend to hold back — at least at first.

His blindness gives them pause.

But when it becomes apparent that he is determined to win, their hesitation evaporates, and he becomes just like everyone else, an equal.

That’s the world of the dojo, he says: a place of respect for all comers.

It’s not the world itself, though, where fitting in and thriving can be considerably harder for a person with a disability.

When Hoekstra moved to Lawrence last year to pursue a doctorate in special education at the University of Kansas, he made a point of living midway between KU and a dojo, in this case Rivers Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at 911 Massachusetts St. The choice was partly about navigation convenience but mostly about his priorities: his career and the martial art that he has come to regard as family.

“I think my third day in Lawrence … I came in here to train and it was like I already knew before I even got here that I would have this community,” he said. It’s an experience he’s had before.

“It’s one of those things like no matter where I travel in the world now — I did jiu jitsu in Ecuador and Chile, in Geneva, here — I already know I have that community each time.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has of course suspended close-contact activity like martial arts, but the family feeling persists, Hoekstra said, in “virtual hangouts” and in people “making grocery runs and the like” for members of the dojo.

Losing his sight

Hoekstra, 35, had normal vision for the first half of his childhood in suburban Grand Rapids, Mich. Around age 7, though, he began having mysterious headaches, which, his family would belatedly learn, stemmed from a strep-related infection that was damaging his optic nerves.

“It was a very random illness,” he said, noting that at the time “doctors just weren’t as aware of this … What happened to me is better understood now.”

As vision problems ensued, on top of the headaches, doctors got a clearer picture of what was happening, but by then it was too late. The vision difficulties, slight at first, quickly worsened, and Hoekstra, over the course of two months, went from “fairly normal vision to being almost completely blind.”

‘Design your game’

What happened next, though, explains his accomplishments over the next 28 years: He got support — lots of it — not just from his family but from teachers who were determined to give him opportunities he would have missed if they had reacted to him in ways he has since encountered.

“I’ve walked into places and people have panicked, like ‘Oh God, how are we going to deal with this?'” he said.

He has had people act like he couldn’t take a language class, couldn’t go on a hike, couldn’t do this, couldn’t do that, you name it — even though none of it intrinsically involved the ability to see.


Matt Thompson, from left, Trevor Rivers, Nick Hoekstra and Heidi Thompson pose for a photo before practice at Rivers Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. Matt Thompson, Trevor Rivers and Heidi Thompson are co-owners of the gym. Hoekstra, who is blind, trains there.

He describes this as the “paralyzing ignorance” that takes hold when people simply don’t know what to do. It may be innocent, he acknowledges, but it’s not harmless.

His advice: “Just stop, take a breath and be willing to talk with the person” seeking inclusion. Try to understand what the person needs — sometimes very little — in order to be included.

In the case of jiu jitsu, one thing Hoekstra has needed is to have moves physically demonstrated to him since he can’t see what the instructor is doing.

For Trevor Rivers and Matt Thompson — co-owners of Rivers Brazilian Jiu Jitsu — this is not a big deal, especially with someone who’s as devoted to the sport as Hoekstra. Helping him succeed — after six years in training he’s midway to a black belt — isn’t extra work; it’s the point of the work.

“I have seen other blind competitors,” Thompson said, “and there are people with double amputations that compete. You can find a way to make it work … I just asked (Hoekstra), ‘What helps you learn?'”

For Rivers, Hoekstra is an embodiment of “the greatest thing about jiu jitsu: It’s very personalizable; you design your game around your abilities.”

‘Do what you want’

Because Hoekstra’s early support network pushed the idea of inclusion and independence so hard, the “instant no” reaction people sometimes have doesn’t faze him much. As one early teacher bluntly told him, “People are going to tell you ‘no,’ so just do it; do what you want to do.”

And he did. He wrestled in high school. He explored an assortment of martial arts. He got a degree from Harvard in international education policy. He traveled the world, working in education in South America, Europe and Asia. He began a doctorate in KU’s special education program, the top-ranked program of its kind in the nation.

His goal now is to finish his PhD and get back to international development work — because he understands that for many people with disabilities, being told “no” is the end of the conversation, not the beginning.

“I would love to see myself working for something like UNICEF or UNESCO or one of the international organizations to help develop projects that are more inclusive,” he said.

It’s a goal that has strengthened with time and travel.

“I never thought I would go into anything to do with special education growing up,” he said. “It was so far from my mind, but I started to travel quite a bit and I lived abroad, and the more I lived abroad, the more I saw that people with disabilities in many, many countries don’t have the same opportunities as they do here.”

He wants to help change that.

His involvement in jiu jitsu, which stemmed from a personal love of the sport, has also become a kind of personal crusade to let people with disabilities know that they can participate in life.

While he touts the particular benefits of martial arts — “physical fitness, self-confidence, awareness of your space,” the dojo as a “second family” — he realizes that they’re not for everyone.

“I want more people with disabilities to become involved in jiu jitsu, judo, karate, to become authors, actors, artists,” he said. “Every person with a disability who gets involved in some activity makes inclusion that much easier for the rest. Each one of us has the potential to enrich the world around us and to be enriched by people who are different from ourselves.”


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