Derek Cleveland returned to his Dalton Gardens gym this week and sat on the edge of the mat, an oxygen tank at his side, to watch his jiujitsu students practice the martial art.
Frail and short of breath, he still held their attention with a few firm coaching tips.
“Now watch what happens,” Cleveland instructed as two students demonstrated a move. “If you see the arm when they start to bridge and turn, take that arm, too, ya know what I mean?”
After 12 days in the hospital, where he was diagnosed with deadly blood clots, his presence lifted the spirits of the 10 kids, ages 6 to 16. But the reunion was bittersweet, as the students realized they’d leave Friday for the Kids World International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Championship tournament in Southern California without their beloved coach, who is too ill to travel.
“I hope to be back on the mat with my kids and my students. That’s my love and my passion,” Cleveland said Tuesday night. “I miss these guys, I miss being on the ground with them and training with them.”
Cleveland, 45, has chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension and pulmonary embolism caused by blood clots that formed in his legs years ago, likely from some type of trauma, and traveled to his lungs, where the clots fused with muscle tissue. The condition puts pressure on his heart, which is enlarged and failing on the right side.
A complex, highly successful surgery known as pulmonary endarterectomy could save his life. But it costs more than $100,000, and the self-employed Cleveland has no health insurance.
“The left side of my heart can only do so much, so it’s eventually going to give out and I’m going to have complete heart failure and end up dying if I stay like this,” he said.
Cleveland has suffered from asthma and bronchial problems all his life, but it wasn’t until he fell ill on the Fourth of July and was admitted to the ER, coughing up blood, that the clots in his lungs were discovered.
He hopes to qualify for the surgery where it was developed, at UC San Diego Health System.
“I’ll be able to go back to a normal, healthy life. I probably won’t be able to compete again, but it’s a miracle operation,” he said.
His students and their families are rallying to help, switching their fundraising focus from tournament travel to Cleveland’s care.
“He does everything for these kids,” said Steve Washburn, whose son Ayden, 6, is on the championship team. “He’s helped bring a lot of focus to my life as well. My family wouldn’t be where it is right now if it wasn’t for him.”
Sarah Paul, 13, has trained with Cleveland for two years and brought home gold medals from last year’s world tournament. Paul projects confidence headed into this weekend’s competition, despite her coach’s absence.
“I can still hear his coaching, even if he’s not there. I know what he’s going to say and tell me to do,” she said.
But Cleveland’s condition is weighing on her. “It’s kind of scary,” Paul said. “I wish he was a lot better.”
Angie Bridge said her son Kyle, 8, has trained under Cleveland for four years. They visited him in the hospital, but it didn’t sink in until this week for Kyle that he’d be competing without his coach at his side.
“He said to me, ‘Derek is always there with me when I do my matches. What do you mean he’s not going to be there?’ ” Bridge said.
The team of champions – the best in the Northwest, Cleveland boasts, and a wall of trophies supports the claim – will compete Saturday and Sunday in San Bernardino, Calif. Parents hope to use an iPad and Facetime to allow the coach to watch the matches and perhaps offer some long-distance advice.
One of his advanced students, Dyton Galliher, will fill in as coach on the trip.
“This will be the very first tournament that I haven’t been at. The big one, and we’ve been training these guys for months,” said Cleveland, who moved to the area in 1997 and opened Iron Lion Jiu-Jitsu Academy in 2003.
Seven students on the team are returning world champions in their brackets. He credits his team’s success to their hard training – five nights a week – and their attention to mental and emotional readiness, as well as physical conditioning.
“I think what really separates them is how they develop their minds, their confidence, their attitude,” he said. “They realize you either win or you learn, but there is no losing.”
The kids signed a poster for him while he was in the hospital: “Get well soon Coach Derek. Love your Iron Lion family.”
“That’s my circle of friends,” he said. “That’s my true family.”