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Meet Steven Ellis, a CrossFit coach from Montana, ushers in Brazilian jiu-jitsu for Kolkatans

The US coach has been working with Chaitown Community since the past year to build a community through fitness

Vedant Karia | Published 04.04.24, 02:53 PM
From the start, Steven Ellis (seen standing in the middle of his students wearing purple) was amazed by Kolkata’s warmth, with people enthusiastic to be involved at every step.

From the start, Steven Ellis (seen standing in the middle of his students wearing purple) was amazed by Kolkata’s warmth, with people enthusiastic to be involved at every step.

All photographs by Soumyajit Dey

Brazilian jiu-jitsu is one of the most adaptable sports today. While it has been growing exponentially for a while outside India, its presence in Kolkata has been quite limited. Until now.

A coach from the US is committed to bringing this sport to Kolkata, not just for fitness, but to build a community. Instead of an intimidating physique and a shrill growl, Steven Ellis believes in teaching with a smile.


He arrived in Kolkata from Montana to collaborate as a coach with Chaitown Community at their MoveStrong fitness centre in south Kolkata’s Lake Gardens. As he introduces the city to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Steven opens up to My Kolkata about his journey across the sea, both on and off the mat.

Growing up in Helena, Montana, Steven’s childhood was diametrically different from most Indian kids. “Helena is one of the bigger towns in Montana, but it’s tiny by Indian standards. It has a population of 30,000 people. There are more people in Lake Gardens here than in my whole town,” he chuckles.

From the start, Steven was into sports. Be it American football, basketball, trekking or wrestling, if it involved activity, he was game. However, martial arts always had a special place in his heart. “I started learning judo when I was five. My grandfather was a black belt, and my father wanted us to have some form of self-defence training. I had already competed in my first judo tournament by the time I was 6,” he remembers. At 15, he had fully committed himself to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), training in multiple forms like kickboxing, wrestling and Muay Thai. “That’s when I fell in love with Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I competed in martial arts for the next three years, and it was my whole life.”

His schedule echoed it. Every day after school, he went to American football practice for three hours, followed by MMA training for three more hours. During the football season, wrestling practice would be added to the mix. But in a few years, this life caught up with him. “Training ate up all my time, and I realised I didn’t want this for my future. I wanted a wife and kids but this wouldn’t be possible with my lifestyle. Martial Arts also didn’t have a lot of money, unless you were at the top, and competing took a huge toll on the body,” he smiles.

At 20, Steven dialled back on competitive training, and got a job at the front desk of a hotel. Parallelly, he got a certification in CrossFit, hoping to become a trainer. He describes CrossFit as one of the most balanced forms of physical fitness, targeting every aspect. He also found that CrossFit complemented Brazilian jiu-jitsu. “Every day is something different, from cardio to strength, and mobility to balance. If you want to be a peak athlete in the best shape of your life, do CrossFit and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. They truly complement each other, much like peanut butter and jelly, or daal and rice.”

Armed with learnings he had gathered over a decade of training, Steven now sought to take his expertise to new pastures. He had found his calling as a coach. “As an athlete, you’re very self-focused. Your training is structured to your next opponent and tournament. But as a coach, you think more about the community. It’s not about winning or losing, you’re there for the relationships.”

In 2018, he had just been married, and came across an opportunity to collaborate with a gym in Mumbai to promote CrossFit. Having spent all his life in Montana, he craved cultural diversity, and wanted to explore. “We went from a town of 1,100 people to a city of over 20 million. We had no idea what we were getting into and it was a huge shock, but we wouldn’t change it for the world. India taught us to respect different cultures, languages, religions and people. Getting out of my hometown and experiencing India is one of the best things I have ever done,” he beams.

When the Covid-19 pandemic prompted him and his wife to leave India without warning, he vowed to return. Once things settled down, Steven wanted to experience a different Indian culture and language. That’s where Chaitown Community came in. He interviewed with its founders, William and Beth, and loved the idea of creating a community within Kolkata through their gym. He returned to India as a CrossFit trainer last May, ready for a new challenge.

Steven coaches a student and (right) a Brazilian jiu-jitsu class in progress

Steven coaches a student and (right) a Brazilian jiu-jitsu class in progress

From the start, he was amazed by Kolkata’s warmth, with people enthusiastic to be involved at every step. He was equally amazed by the potato in the biryani. “Kolkata is a lot more relationship-driven than Mumbai. The latter was very business focused, and it was a bit challenging to make friends at first. But the second we got to Kolkata, doors were flung wide open, and people wanted to help. We loved that.” The only two challenges he faced were with the language and driving. He hopes to combat the first with Bengali classes, which he takes four days a week. As for the second, he prefers staying five minutes away from the gym.

Moving to India has shaped his perspective in a major way. “The first thing I learnt is that life is not about me. When you step out of your comfort zone, you interact with people who are different. You then have two options: either press in and change, or go home. I made the decision to learn from the people around me, and rethink the way I see the world. It’s not easy, but that’s the journey I’m on.”

Launched last month, Steven’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu class has already generated a lot of interest. Currently, classes are held twice a week (Wednesday and Friday), with the option of opening it on a third day too. While it is still new to the city, Steven and his team are hoping to incorporate it into the city’s culture.

He has a trusty ice-breaker in place, whenever a new person walks into the gym. “I always ask, ‘Are you FAT?’ They think I’m referring to their physical appearance, but what I actually want to know is, are you faithful, available and teachable?” This Brazilian jiu-jitsu class feels reflective of Steven’s own journey. He expects the programme to not only introduce people to the fastest growing and most adaptive sport in the world, but also help them grow by moving to unfamiliar territory. “The best way to learn is by failing, not succeeding. When people get submitted, they sometimes get angry and don’t come back. But when you keep coming back and asking questions, it develops the best character and skill set. This sport strips away all pride and ego, because you fail every single time you step on the mat.”

This same aspect of Brazilian jiu-jitsu cultivates a sense of community. Steven gushes about how, when a group of people know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, it brings a different level of vulnerability. The same principle has led to him finding his closest friends in the gym. “In other forms of fitness, you can shut the world out and focus only on yourself. You are forced to work with your partner, your coach and your community. It’s not about getting people ready for the next competition, but being a part of their journey beyond your own. I’ve never been a part of a sport with a stronger community,” he grins, adding that militaries around the world are incorporating Brazilian jiu-jitsu into their training.

But what makes it more appealing over other forms of MMA? He explains that while the median age in judo is 18, it is 35 in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. This is because of the relatively lower risk of injury. “Forms like judo are very strenuous on your body. You’re literally picking and throwing someone, with a high risk of injury. When you’re in your 30s and 40s, one bad fall will rule you out for weeks. But with Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the training can be as intense or chill as you want. I know people in their 60s who enjoy their training, and make it to work the next morning without getting burnt out. These skills aren’t just great for self-defence, but your confidence too!”

Contrary to what people think, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is not about conflict. Steven insists that the longer someone trains in it, the fewer fights they get into. “When you train enough, you know when not to engage. You don’t let your anger get the best of you, because you’ve already been humbled at the gym. Some of the best competitors I’ve met are the most kind, gentle and compassionate people. But they could kill you if they wanted.” There is a focus on wielding strength with wisdom. Do you use it to beat up someone on the sidewalk for calling you a name, or protecting your kids when an intruder breaks into your home?

While they have high hopes from the programme, Steven and Chaitown are taking it one day at a time for now. Judging by the enthusiastic fist bumps his students greet him with, a community has already been built.

Last updated on 28.04.24, 05:15 PM

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