By Hayden Campbell

February 13, 2020 – the first day I wrestled one of my sources.

Literally wrestled.

Let me not get ahead of myself though. There was no yelling or screaming. No wild, sporadic conflict for control of some recording device – no.

The room was full of laughter and friendly banter, maybe the occasional, “Fuck! You got me!” which was quickly followed up by a prompt handshake and a smile.

What I’m describing is how Jiu-Jitsu is conducted at The Academy. A martial arts studio in Davisville, Toronto.

Wrestling with him was a little like wrestling with an older brother. I’m no stranger to martial arts but ground-based disciplines aren’t my specialty. At any moment, he could have thrown me into one submission or another… but he didn’t. Instead, he let me try to catch him in as many submissions as I could. Even while we were wrestling, he played coach, giving me directives like, “No, you can’t choke me out like that – do it this way!”

Not something you hear encouraged by an opponent very often.

It became clear that this was a learning environment.

No egos. No hazing.

No bullshit.

Culture in action

A display of medals to be given out following the Jiu-Jitsu tournament (Hayden Campbell/T•).

February 29, 2020. The day of the in-house Jiu Jitsu tournament.

A boy, no older than seven, steps quietly into the tournament hall.

There are no eyes on him, nobody to hold him accountable for his actions. Still, he bows deeply before stepping onto the mat.

The gesture stuck with me. I thought back to myself at the age of seven: impulsive, energetic and rebellious. I’d have gone out of my way for an opportunity to break the rules, no matter how small.

With the boy; what could demand that kind of respect?

It made me curious. The gym was tapping into something that I found impossible to define. I was determined to get into the nitty gritty of what it was.

Dino Chantziaras, the owner of the gym and my aforementioned wrestling partner, explained to me the intricacies of how their gym operates, the Japanese principles and traditions it upholds and how they do so.

“When you do all these traditions it just shows respect for the space. It’s to create the type of environment that makes you feel like you can come and train every day safely.”

– Dino Chantziaras
Dino Chantziaras explains the Japanese traditions utilized in class. (Hayden Campbell/T•)

I wasn’t sure how seriously their Japanese-inspired traditions would be taken by members of The Academy. The seven-year-old in me thought that they wouldn’t be. That it would be a, “Yeah, yeah, whatever” kind of thing.

How wrong I was.

I noticed a craving amongst members for that type of policy. When I would make a mistake – violate some tradition or other – I would be politely, but quickly, reminded of the correct method.

“These Japanese Judo roots encourage a culture of respect.” Said Jooyoung Lee, Head Coach and a professor at the University of Toronto. “They teach us humility and respect. These are the cornerstones of The Academy and what makes the place so special.”

Upholding culture

The Academy Ares room, visible just after walking in the door on the top floor (Hayden Campbell/T•).

The Academy is one of the only gyms in the GTA that won’t just take your money and allow you to train. All who wish to train at the gym are required to go for the first week before being granted permission to join.

“We qualify our members based on three things: willingness to learn, respectful demeanor and team spirit,” Dino explained. “Which sounds super simple. But you’d be shocked at how many people can’t fit into this very large hoop.”

Dino credits this selectiveness to what has ultimately allowed the gym to realize its full cultural potential. The culture I experienced above.

Coaches are responsible for evaluating new members as they come in and ensuring that they are the right cultural fit for The Academy. After the initial screening period, members that did not meet these requirements will be notified.

“There’s certain guys we can work with,” said Dino. “Some guys might be a little bit of a hothead, but you can tell they’re malleable. What we’re looking for is not the perfect candidate right away. But someone who’s willing to work with us.”

A guide to understanding classes offered at The Academy (Hayden Campbell/T•).

Creating culture

Members of the gym congratulating each other after the conclusion of the in-house Jiu-Jitsu tournament (Hayden Campbell/T•).

Dino opened his gym three years ago after not being able to find a gym with the sense of community he was looking for.

You’re never far away from a laugh talking to Dino. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but still carries himself professionally. He’s the type of guy that goes out of his way to say hi.

“I really opened it up for selfish reasons!” He laughed, an echo bouncing around the walls of the homey office, complete with a Nintendo-64 in the corner and a few championship belts hung subtly behind the door, so as not to boast them to everyone who walks in. “In the beginning, this was a place for my friends to come and train. And I think through consistency with our traditions and values it’s become so much more.”

At the time, they had more than 150 members.

“The Academy is a very special place,” said Tim Lytle, a long-time member of the studio who Dino described as a ‘huge supporter’ and ‘yoga fiend’. “I’ve been training since I was 19 but I hit a point where I didn’t think I would ever train again. The Academy, and their focus on who their members are, changed that for me.”

Culture: Tried & tested

March 17, 2020. The gym shut down due to COVID-19.

March 31, 2020. The day I talked to Dino over the phone.

Two weeks and The Academy had lost more than half of its 150 members who relied on their jobs to continue paying for their memberships.

Needless to say, I was concerned. I had spent quite a bit of time around The Academy at this point and found myself attached to the people and their unique attitude.

Dino reassured me with a laugh,

“I don’t have deep pockets, but I have a lot of support. Picture worldwide recession: nobody’s going outside, there’s barely any money circulating, and people are just down. Then, someone emails me $200 and says please use this money. Then, someone else emails me and says here’s the money for my membership and I want to pay for someone else who can’t pay it. It’s not about having the best of everything it’s making the best of everything!”

This is when it all clicked.

What Dino began to build all those years ago with his friends was a creed. The pillars of a community that gathers by choice and not out of necessity. A place where like-minded people can get together to practice the same thing, in the same way, with the same rules.

A family.

Competitors of the tournament celebrating their hard work together (Hayden Campbell/T•).

Like any good detective, I had to confirm my hypotheses again. I spoke to more members of the gym and asked them open-ended questions about “the culture” to see if anyone would describe it as a family without suggestion.

“I know every gym touts themselves as a family, but the culture at The Academy really takes the meaning of family to another level.” Said Johnny Manicat, a martial artist who has trained with The Academy for two years. “I’ve trained at a number of gyms over the last 10-plus years and the people at The Academy really look out for each other on and off the mats.”

I also spoke to Kaeli Sweigard, a digital marketing expert by profession and a martial arts enthusiast by interest. She trained with Dino before he opened The Academy and was one of the first members to sign up. She spoke candidly about her experience and why women may gravitate to The Academy instead of other Toronto gyms.

“There’s a lot of women who have ended up at The Academy because it’s generally considered a safe or safer space than possibly some other gyms in the city. The Academy’s women’s program is really accepting.”

– Kaeli Sweigard
Kaeli Sweigard talks about her experience as a woman at The Academy. (Hayden Campbell/RSJ)

After speaking to them, and remembering my own experience, I was convinced.

When you go there for the first time it truly feels as if you’ve been invited into someone’s home. They welcome you with wide, open arms. The members within each class went out of their way to shake my hand, introduce themselves to me. That was when it became clear – this was all about basic intimacy and interaction. Things that our society lacks in this technological age.

Take it from me, a stranger. I emailed Dino about the possibility of writing a story on his gym and he called me back within five minutes to give me the green light. Not only that, but he allowed me free use of the gym and classes.

Since then, members of the community were nothing but receptive to me. Always happy to chat, train, or answer any questions that I might have had. I can speak nothing but praise from the time that I’ve spent there – these are the kinds of people that stick together.

And I wish them the best.

The Academy is located at 33 Davisville Avenue and rents space from Striation 6, an exercise and sports therapy centre.

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