2017 ADCC World Championships

ADCC Champ Orlando Sanchez's Brush With Death And Indomitable Spirit

ADCC Champ Orlando Sanchez's Brush With Death And Indomitable Spirit

2015 ADCC champion Orlando Sanchez recently came face-to-face with death in what he calls "the worst week" of his life.

Aug 3, 2017 by Hywel Teague
ADCC Champ Orlando Sanchez's Brush With Death And Indomitable Spirit
Orlando Sanchez has had to overcome innumerable challenges in his time. Most recently, the 2015 ADCC +99kg champion came face-to-face with death in what he calls "the worst week" of his life.

In a bed at the Loma Linda University Medical Center's Cardiac ICU and with shock pads attached to his chest, Sanchez faced losing everything. His heart was swollen and filled with fluid, and his heart rate was a staggering 196 beats per minute. His young son and daughter wailed and asked their mother if daddy was going to die.

Rewind a couple of days to the weekend of July Fourth: the owner of two Gracie Barra gyms, Sanchez had planned a family getaway to their cabin up at Lake Arrowhead, CA. The break was just what the Gracie Barra black belt needed after the non-stop stress of the last year and a half.

His beloved grandmother passed away. He was in the process of expanding his business to open another two Gracie Barra locations in the Los Angeles area. On top of that, he had had to deal with an anonymous group of people trying to defame him on social media and on forums, posting unfounded rumors that attacked his character, hurt his business, and damaged his relationships.

Sanchez prepares to take to the mat at ADCC 2015 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, flanked by his wrestling coach Jacob Harman. Photo: Hywel Teague

The stress had been building and building, but Sanchez is not one to lay down easily. He'd overcome a hardcore history of drug abuse in his 20s, and he suspected his heavy cocaine usage had begun to catch up with him. He would always feel short of breath, would constantly cough, and would wake up in his sleep choking.

He mostly put it down to anxiety, understandable given his recent trials. He still trained every night but found himself overheating so much he had to put a fan on the mats to cool him down. And just like always, he kept on pushing.

Sanchez jumped on his Harley to make the two-hour drive from his home of Pasadena to the cabin, where he would meet his family. As soon as he got there, he realized something wasn't right. Everything he had been feeling got 10 times worse. Maybe it was the 5,000-foot elevation, but something wasn't right. He had difficulty breathing.

After calling one of his students who is an ER doctor, Sanchez was advised to get checked out in case he had fluid on his lungs.

At the emergency room, the doctors performed an EKG and X-rayed his chest. His heart was swollen and his chest was filling with fluid. An ambulance rushed him to the cardiac ICU, where Sanchez was put on diuretics.

Sanchez submits Janne Pekka with an armlock from the crucifix position. Photo: Hywel Teague

It was here they discovered he was in what is called AIFB -- atrial fibrillation -- a quivering or irregular heartbeat more often called arrhythmia.

Lying in bed with a 196bpm heart rate, it was here Sanchez felt at his lowest.

"The worst thing I've ever had to go through was looking at my kids and watching them crying hysterically, asking my wife if daddy was going to die. It absolutely broke me," Sanchez says.

To reset his heartbeat, doctors knocked him out and attached electroshock pads to his chest, firing pulses in an effort to "reboot" his system. After a few days being monitored, he was allowed to go home.

"I can't believe I didn't die," Sanchez says. He estimates he had been suffering from the atrial fibrillation for around eight months -- a period in which he never stopped training -- dating back to the time his grandmother died.

"I remembered being there in the room and watching her dying with tubes all over her in the hospital, and it just crushed me," he says. "It felt like the world fell on me. I was carrying my daughter in my arms when I left the hospital, and I had a major attack -- I thought was a heart attack. Sure enough, the emotional stress of that night and all the shit I had been dealing with this last year was too much for my heart."

Sanchez figured that when it's his time, it's his time, and there was no point sitting and waiting for it to come. He went back to the gym the day after he got out of hospital.

Putting on the pressure versus Jared Dopp in the final of the +99kg division. Photo: Hywel Teague

"I honestly feel like I'm a teenager again," he says. "I can go and go and I don't even break a sweat. Physically, I feel like a new man, but mentally I'm struggling tremendously."

Every little thing he feels in his chest brings back memories of facing his own mortality, of leaving his wife and children behind. He finds himself breaking down and crying for small reasons. He says it's one of the hardest things he's ever had to go through and has profoundly affected his outlook.

"I view everything differently right now," Sanchez says. "The little things just don't matter to me anymore. When you think you are going to die, everything you look at changes. All I care about is my wife and children, my students, and my team. All this drama and fighting, it's all so irrelevant now."

Called back to the hospital to do a stress test, Sanchez's competitive side emerged.

Placed on a treadmill that gradually increases in speed, the medical staff monitored his heartbeat. They told him, "Don't worry, go as long as you want. The treadmill always wins."

"I said not today, bro -- fuck your treadmill," Sanchez says. "I told him no way his treadmill will beat me."

After 18 minutes they told him they had to turn it off and the test was over. "That's just how my crazy competition mind works," he says.

Orlando Sanchez, 2015 ADCC +99kg champion. Photo: Hywel Teague

Sanchez is known as one of the toughest American black belts on the scene, as he showed in 2015 when he ran through the +99kg division, beating Dean Lister, Vinny Magalhaes, and Jared Dopp to win gold.

With everything that has been going on he says he has barely had time to think about the upcoming ADCC on September 23-24 in Espoo, Finland.

"But I will tell you this, when I show up to Finland nobody will be able to touch me," Sanchez says.

After a near-death experience and realizing that the thing that nearly killed me was my unbreakable mindset -- the same mindset that has pushed me to the top of this sport -- I'm telling you I have a self belief more powerful than anybody's training camps or techniques or ripped abs.
As of now, as long as my heart stays in order and all my tests keep coming back normal, my doctor will give me a green light and I will get on that plane and travel to Finland to become the 2017 ADCC world champion.