Have you ever had to dive headfirst into unknown, choppy waters simply because you knew it was the right thing to do?
Metaphorically or not, almost everyone has found themselves at that key moment, where one action might change everything. The safety of the deck, firm, protected and dry, or the wild sea, with its rewards?
Well, once, Professor Helio Gracie had to decide. The grandmaster and perfector of many jiujitsu levers was with his older brother, Grandmaster Carlos Gracie, on a trip on the ship Itajané in late 1946. The ship was sailing from northern Brazil to Rio de Janeiro and passing close to the Abrolhos archipelago, when the commotion happened: man overboard! Crazy, incautious or suicidal, the fact is that there was a Brazilian brother drowning. Soon a boat with two rowers went in search of him, but the waves and the guy's condition were preventing the rescue.
What would you do? Helio Gracie would go, and he did. The outcome was a happy ending and a medal for bravery awarded to the 34-year-old jiujitsu teacher.
The episode yields, until today, some lessons, besides the example of bravery pure and simple. To wit:
First of all, knowledge counts
When Carlos and Helio Gracie went to the deck of the ship Itanajé to feel the drama of the poor castaway that was already submerging, they got not very encouraging information. "We are in Abrolhos," said a cabin boy, close to the pair of jiujitsu teachers. Another captain would later say, "I wouldn't jump into these shark-infested waters to save my mother." In fact, Helio Gracie did not know the Abrolhos region like the old sailors in the area. Nor, in those days, did he know the statistics that are commonplace today—that shark deaths do not exceed ten per year (six are usually victims in Australian waters). But Helio had a knowledge that few others there had: of swimming techniques, a sport Gracie loved to practice every week, and he was also technical, fast and skilled. From the training came the confidence that yes, he could save the passenger from drowning, and return safely to the boat.
2. Talk to the people you trust
Leaning on the deck with an eye on the incessant waves, the teacher asked Brother Carlos:
"Don't you feel like going there to save him?"
"Yes, but I don't know whether I can make it," answered the older brother calmly, since the wretch seemed to be more than 500 meters from the ship. Helio then answered immediately:
"But I do."
"Then go, and save the man."
The exchange of ideas with more experienced family members, trusted people and friends who only want us to do well has been proven to be one of the best therapies for those who are living with a problem. In the episode in question, Helio and Carlos exchanged brief sentences that inflated the younger brother's confidence. Yes, he could do it. Yes, he was right to believe he could do it. And so he took off his shirt, pants and shoes, ignored the negative opinion of those who feared the sharks, and jumped.
3. Focus on the mission
When jumping on the water, Helio Gracie had doubts. "But what am I doing here?" he reported thinking to his friends and students of the Valente family decades later. As soon as he hit the water, he went about moving his arms as if he were motorized so as not to go too deep and not to waste time. Upon reaching the drowning man, Helio carried him to the boat that was already turning around, gave clear and direct instructions to the sailors (the famous Gracie talking-to), and effected the rescue.
4. Nothing beats a clear conscience
"I started to get very tired, already doubting whether I would reach him before he disappeared, which would be a deep disappointment for me," Helio recalled. "When I finally got my hands on him, I remember thinking: now the die is cast; if a shark comes along, it will choose between me or him!" laughed the master, who climbed into the dinghy with the rescued man.
It was about 5:30 p.m., it was getting dark, and the dinghy ride back was not easy at all. Until Helio said, "Row with all your might, you sluggards, or I'm swimming back!" Gracie returned to the ship in the midst of a great celebration, but he was not after a medal or bragging rights—he just wanted to sleep with a clear conscience for having tried, and accomplished the mission he had set for himself. When the ship laid over in Bahia, the story had already become legend. And another big achievement, now out of the ring, for the pages of the Gracie family.