Jiu Jitsu for All Ages

Jiu Jitsu For All Ages: An Interview With Tom O’Keefe

Tom O’Keefe is not your typical martial arts student. Born in 1935, Tom earned his blue belt on November 2nd at the age of 83. We sat down with Tom to hear about what brought him to Jiu Jitsu later in life and his journey as an older practitioner of BJJ.

A Lifetime of Sports

Before discovering Jiu Jitsu, Tom had already led a long and interesting life. During his twenties he served on the police force in New York City. But due to the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was called back into the Army in 1963. Being in the Army required him to stay fit, and he developed a love for triathlons.

“I did that for decades, through my 30s, 40s, 50s…and then when I hit 60 I was training for a marathon,” says Tom. “I had just finished one marathon and was training for another one, and I had a heart episode. They gave me all kinds of tests and they couldn’t figure out anything for sure that was wrong, but I decided it was time to do something different.”

Tom serving in the Army in Vietnam, circa 1965.

For his next sport, Tom got into power lifting. He began to train and eventually competed at the national and international level. To this day he still holds some age group American records in power lifting. But as Tom got older, a problem arose with competing.

“I just ran out of competition. As I approached 80, I would go to meets and there was nobody in my age group. I was going out there competing against myself, and after a while that gets old.”

Discovering Jiu Jitsu

When Tom backed off from power lifting, he decided to give Brazilian Jiu Jitsu a try. He was a fan of MMA and had seen how important ground work is in fighting.

“In my twenties I had studied Karate. There were very few martial arts schools at that time. I studied that for about a year and then when I got on the police force I was working crazy hours and I didn’t have time to do that anymore. But in the back of my mind I always wanted to get back in and try some martial arts training.”

“It was hard right from the start. I almost quit completely! Everything was just like a new language that I didn’t understand at all. At my age it’s harder to learn new things. That’s just a fact. But I decided, don’t worry about it. Just show up. If you go home and forget everything, that’s alright, because you still had a great workout.”

With time and persistence, Tom began to make progress in Jiu Jitsu. And he saw many benefits from his training, both physical and mental.

“Agility, flexibility, speed, and strength…it’s the most all-around beneficial thing I’ve ever done for the body. And I also think for the mind. They try to come up with all sorts of mental exercises for older people to do to avoid Alzheimer’s, do crossword puzzles or play bridge…but I think Jiu Jitsu is really good.”

The Blue Belt Milestone

After training 4 times a week consistently for two years, Tom earned his blue belt at the ceremony on November 2nd.

“It felt good. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get it!” Tom says with a chuckle. “But I’m not too worried about the belt. I’m more interested in the process. The process of drilling and rolling.”

Looking back on his past two years of training, Tom has some tips for other seniors looking to get into Jiu Jitsu.

“I’m very careful who I pick out as a partner when I roll. I’m not going to pick out some 25 year old white belt that’s 250 pounds. And I have to limit my rounds. If we’re doing four rounds at the end of class, I’ll do two of them.”

But Tom’s biggest piece of advice for anyone who is worried they might be too old for Jiu Jitsu is simple:

“Do it! I’m not a big fan of Nike, but they have a great slogan: Just do it. Do what you can do. The professors will take care of you. I really think it’s good for old people, I really do.”

Giving Thanks and Looking Ahead

Tom feels very fortunate that his good health allows him to practice martial arts later in life, and he plans to keep training for as long as his body will allow.

“I’m thankful to God for giving me the good health to do this. I say a little prayer of thanks every day before I work out, and I ask Him to protect the class and keep everyone from serious injury and give us all a good class.”

Tom is also thankful to Professors Vellore, Ethan, and Rossie, and all his teachers and training partners at Easton. We are thankful to have Tom in our Easton family too!