An old friend of mine died at the very end of June. I'd say passed away, but that implies a quiet ending or in the very least an anticipated one. This was not that sort of death, and it has taken a while to process.
I first met Ryan Jimmo in Saint John, NB at a karate tournament. My step-father was the Sensei the dojo to which I belonged, and was a coach for team New Brunswick. I had been in martial arts since six, but I didn't enter a ring until I was fourteen; I didn't think I would be good enough.
I didn't go to the first tournament of the season that year, but I went with my step-father for the second, as a spectator. I was on the edge of my seat. I was hooked.
After the tournament, my step-father was speaking with Sensei Jimmo and Linda Jimmo (Ryan's father and mother) with whom he was friends. Not knowing anyone else there, I went to join them. It wasn't long before Ryan joined us.
In the professional fighting world, Ryan would earn the moniker "Big Deal." It was true even back then. He was a big deal. Everything about him seemed extra: stature, personality, skill, energy. Friendly with everyone, he introduced himself to me right away: big grin on his animated face; small, surprisingly bookish glasses in place on his nose; gold medal he had won a half-hour earlier still around his neck. It strikes me now that that was how he always was: everything up front. He said he hadn't seen my fight. I told him I hadn't fought. He shrugged, laughed, and said I had to make sure to sign up for the next one.
So I did.
I won't go so far to say that his encouragement swung that decision, but his confidence was infectious. I trained at home, I attended not only my own dojo but also (with my step-father driving me the hour and a half to Saint John after school so that I could make it in time) occasionally those of Sensei Jimmo, and Sensei Oliver - the head coaches for the NB Provincial Team. I stepped into the ring for the first time ever three months later, with a handful of techniques I hoped would prevent me from having my ass utterly handed to me under my belt. I went three, stop-timer rounds in a row.
I placed gold.
It was the first time ever I wasn't surprised by how well I'd done a thing. It wasn't arrogance, but I can honestly say it was the first time I had so undeniably believed in myself. My parents were shocked, the head coaches were pleasantly surprised, the girl who I had beaten in the final round (a previously unbeaten champion) was pissed (perhaps rightfully so, I upset some rankings). The only one who didn't seem surprised was Ryan. He just seemed to expect remarkable things from anyone who stepped up to the line.
I was too late to qualify for Nationals that year, but based on my performance I was invited to train with the provincial team. I would qualify for the next three seasons to follow. For each of those years Ryan was the male team captain (our team had two captains: male and female).
Ryan's belief in remarkable things was carried into everything he did, and was extended to everyone he talked to. He'd spend time with every person on the team making sure everyone was on-point (because, he would stress, we were a team). Any drill the coaches put us through, he put himself through twice as hard. He talked the talk, and walked the walk (and would bust out a moon-walk or Robot move at any given chance). I'd never met anyone so dedicated to being the best, or who had such a good time doing it. I have yet to meet his like again. He is to this day the person I think of when I feel my own dedication to my craft slipping. How could you not admire a person who taught you that even when you were sore all over, exhausted, sweat running down your face, tampon unabashedly shoved up your nostril to stem the bleeding from the jab you took to the nose, to not get mad at yourself or opponent but just to shrug, laugh that you should have blocked it, and get back in the ring?
I guess to say he inspired me would be an understatement.
Somewhere in my second season Ryan began to date my older sister, and they stayed together for the better part of two years. I won't go into what are their personal details, but I will say that I got to know him as more than just a fighter and a teammate. For a while, he was very close to being family. I got to see what a lot of people outside the ring or tournament circuit didn't see. A nerd at heart, he loved sci-fi, human psychology, and was a fine chess player. Despite the intense promotional posters that he would later pose for, I can't think of him without thinking first his goofy grin and big laugh.
We didn't get along all the time. In fact there were many topics over which we did not see eye to eye. He could be infuriating to argue with, as artful at dodging discourse as he was a punch, and just as stubborn to come out on top. But in spite of that, we were always friends again afterwards. He taught me you don't have to agree with a person all the time to respect them.
After I graduated high school, I left the fighting world to pursue other things, only training on my own time and no longer attending tournaments, or classes at the local dojo. University kept me too busy. Ryan went on winning National and International competitions, and then moving into the ranks of professional mixed-martial arts. Off my radar, I would occasionally get updates from my step-father about what my former teammates were up too in their fighting careers (one of them, Kate Campbell, is still kicking butt in a big way!). By the time facebook became a thing, and we added each other as friends, he had become the Big Deal - a thing that those in-the-know in New Brunswick had known for some time.
We kept in touch in that sporadic way that social media allows to people who have gone their separate ways but share a past: comments here, thumbs up, smiley there. And just like for other old friends, whenever I heard news of a big win, or a record break, I'd feel just as happy as I did back on the side of the ring with the old team as we cheered one of our own in a fight.
On June 25th, just a little over six weeks ago, Ryan posted a video to his facebook wall. It was an inspirational video. He frequently posted such things. I didn't watch it at first, and went to bed.
The next night, my phone rang. It was my older sister. She asked me if I'd heard the news. I hadn't. Ryan had been murdered. Intentionally hit with a truck after stopping in a parking lot on a drive home from stargazing with his fiancée - to whom he had proposed just hours earlier.
I kept checking the news that night, and all the next day. Because it felt like a mistake. Because it seemed impossible. It still seems impossible. Pictures would come up on my searches for news, and the impossibility seemed even greater. This big guy, this big deal, who filled whatever room he was standing in was gone. Senselessly gone. Because a kid in a truck was angry. A kid who, had he ever known Ryan, might have been a less angry kid for it. Ryan was a fighter, but in practice he believed in peaceful resolutions to conflict. He was more likely to try and stop a fight than start one, which was why he'd gotten out of his car in the first place that night. There have been stranger paradoxes in this world, but none so tragic that I've ever personally known.
I live in Montreal now, and couldn't go to the memorial or funeral back in Saint John where he was laid to rest. My sister and my parents went, along with several of the old team. I was told later how he was cremated, as had been his wish, I was struck again by how alarming it was that Ryan was gone; so many years spent crafting his art (because all great distinctions are in execution both art and craft), crafting his physical performance, and now that physical part was gone.
It's not even that Ryan and I were the best friends (hell, it's been ten years since we had a full conversation), but I don't think it is ever too late to reflect on the people and things you appreciate or have made an impact in your life. But I never told him how he inspired me, and I've been digesting that for the last month. That, and the senselessness of his death. That above all else may be the hardest morsel to swallow.
* * *
On a Sunday back in 2003, the New Brunswick Provincial Karate team was wrapping up the first of what would be many four-hour training sessions that season in preparation for the Nationals that would be held at the end of March. We were sweating, aching and red-faced; we trained by fighting one another, but at the end of the day we'd hug it out, slap shoulders and compliment hard-earned victories. As we caught our breath or sucked back thankful gulps of water, Ryan called our attention before we departed. He told us to remember exactly how this felt, and how good it felt to be a part of this team, to encourage others and in turn be encouraged. It was easy when we were all right there, but he then told us to remember to sweat and fall and get up again, even if doubled over and gasping, when we were all alone. That the biggest fight you'll ever have will be between your self-doubt and your self-determination. Win that fight, and you can win anything. He said to remember that.