Flashback To The Heartland: Daisy Fresh Photo Essay

In February 2017 I completed my first project working freelance for FloGrappling, a photo essay titled "A Trip To America's Unseen Jiu-Jitsu Heartland." I lost money on the project, slept on the mats with the guys in the cold Illinois winter, and ended up having to change my friend's tire in the middle of nowhere in freezing weather on the way back to Chicago from Southern Illinois. But it was successful and opened up doors for me.

null


We recently wrapped filming on a two-part film on the athletes living on the mats at Pedigo Submission Fighting, inside the former Daisy Fresh Laundromat. We follow their struggles in Mt. Vernon all the way to No-Gi Worlds in Anaheim, California. It's a project I'm excited about, first check out the photo essay that inspired the film, What Is Daisy Fresh?

WATCH: Daisy Fresh Episode 1


A Trip To America's Unseen Jiu-Jitsu Heartland

Originally published May 9, 2017

We commissioned photographer Michael Sears to document the training of a small independent jiu-jitsu team with little resources but plenty of heart. 

The first thing that caught my eye when I entered Mt. Vernon, Illinois, was the sign "Population: 15,000." It's not where you'd expect an up-and-coming team with several World and Pan championship medals to reside. 

This is America's heartland and a long way from the sunshine of California or Florida or the hustle and bustle of New York. 

nullI

I came here to shoot a photo essay with Pedigo Submission Fighting, a tiny team making a lot of noise thanks to athletes such as purple belt Andrew Wiltse and a growing squad of tough-as-nails white belt competitors. 

When you pull up to the gym, it is easy to think you in the wrong place. The sign outside only reads "Daisy Fresh Laundromat." If you saw the Daisy Fresh American Jiu-Jitsu shirt released last year, it is a tribute to this little-known gym.

Opening the door you are greeted with old wrestling mats, cracked in places from freezing winters and blazing hot summers. 

Hanging on the walls and piled in random places are what seems like an uncountable amount of gold medals. Andrew Wiltse and his younger brother, "Bird" -- both blue belt world champions -- live here, sleeping on mattresses they stow to one side during training. 

The Wiltse brothers moved to this small gym to train with Heath Pedigo, their coach and mentor, and chase their dreams of success on the biggest stages of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

All Photos by Michael Sears 

null


Pedigo (center, in red) met the Wiltse brothers Bird (left) and Andrew (right) in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at a small boxing gym.

"They are from an island in between the United States and Canada," Pedigo said. "Andrew was training in the boxing gym with their team on a very small gymnastics mat on a basketball court. They had a small group that got together and practiced judo, boxing, and grappling. I trained with them and then spoke with Andrew after, and he expressed wanting to come and train jiu-jitsu with us.

"With literally several feet of snow on the ground, I had heard that him and his brother weren't living in the best conditions, and so I offered them to come and live with me in the gym. They did, and I've been stuck with them ever since!"

null


"I've never looked at being from a small town as a disadvantage," Pedigo said. "I've always felt like it's that much more of a reason to work hard. I think the crew looks at it the same way. We know we don't have an amazing facility, but it doesn't stop the crew from having the desire to be the best, to work harder than everyone else regardless of where they are in the world." 

null


"We are a very close group," Pedigo said. "We learned early we have more success by helping each other succeed. I think that is the most important thing you can have in a team. They push each other and all have the same goals in mind."

null

null

null

null


"Man, our classes get intense -- it's not uncommon for visitors to run out the door to throw up," Andrew Wiltse said. "We only have competition classes. Every day is hard drilling and hard rolling. Being pushed to your limit by a room full of Pan and World champions while Heath is talking in the background, instilling the competition mindset into us, it's life-changing. This team is the reason behind all of my success." 

null

null


"They train very hard: drilling, conditioning, training, and teaching the kids program every day," Pedigo said. "They do not miss training. They train hurt. They train tired and sore. They are very special and never make excuses. They are amazing students, coaches, and especially friends." 

null

null


"When they are not training or studying, they read or play a game on their computer that I have yet to figure out," Pedigo said. "I think it's way out of my league even trying to explain!"

null

null

null

"I'm looking forward to going against guys who I've been seeing in competition for years, and who have advanced in skill right along with me," Andrew said. "Long-term I want to show the world that you really don't have to come from a big city or a big gym to have success. It's all about how you train and who you have supporting you."


What Made Marcelo Garcia So Special? An Explanation

Four-time ADCC champion and five-world championship, Marcelo Garcia, is one of the greatest grapplers in history. His world-class technique has allowed him to conquer opponents twice his size and today he is one of the most beloved icons of our sport. Take a deep dive and see why he's still the greatest, even in retirement.

Unlock this article, live events, and more with a subscription!

Get Started

Already a subscriber? Log In

ADCC Return, Memories And Advice For Beginners From Marcelo And Bernardo

4x ADCC champion Marcelo Garcia and IBJJF Worlds open class champion Bernardo Faria both called in for the 34th episode of the WNO Podcast. The Alliance legends trained together for years in New York and both came through the same academy in Sao Paulo under Fabio Gurgel. You could really feel the brotherhood in one of the most fun WNO interviews yet, here are the highlights - 

Unlock this article, live events, and more with a subscription!

Get Started

Already a subscriber? Log In

Secret Sauce: Art Of Jiu-Jitsu's Three Pillars of Success

Step inside one of the most innovative teams in jiu-jitsu and learn how design impacts every aspect of life. 

Buchecha, Torres The Miyaos, & More Teach You How to Smash The DLR

The De La Riva (DLR) guard is one of the most ubiquitous and formidable positions in modern jiu-jitsu.

Unlock this article, live events, and more with a subscription!

Get Started

Already a subscriber? Log In

Buchecha, Galvao, & Romulo Speak On Mindful Drilling

Although jiu-jitsu academies may be closed for the foreseeable future, if you're lucky, you may be quarantined with a fellow practitioner, meaning you still have the chance to develop functional, practical jiu-jitsu skills through drilling and concept exploration. 

Unlock this article, live events, and more with a subscription!

Get Started

Already a subscriber? Log In

The Danaher Death Squad BodyBuilding & Nutrition Strategies

Academies and competitors around the world are eager to adopt the winning formula behind the Danaher Death Squad. Today, John, Gordon and Nick give us a piece of that formula by sharing their bodybuilding and nutrition strategy.

Unlock this article, live events, and more with a subscription!

Get Started

Already a subscriber? Log In

Jonnatas Gracie's Remarkable Purple Belt Absolute Run

null

When Jonnatas first looked at the purple belt absolute bracket at the 2017 IBJJF World Championships, he didn't feel too great about his path to victory. After all, he was a lightweight with three ultra-heavyweight medalists standing in his way. 

Unlock this article, live events, and more with a subscription!

Get Started

Already a subscriber? Log In

Gordon And Nick Went Full Jersey on WNO Podcast And It Was Something Else

Gordon Ryan and Nick Rodriguez both called in for the Ep. 32 of The WNO Podcast. In true New Jersey fashion, they didn't hold back when discussing their rivals on the show. Here are some of the highlights. 

Unlock this article, live events, and more with a subscription!

Get Started

Already a subscriber? Log In

How Xande Ribeiro Holds A Near Unbreakable ADCC Record

Standing on the top of the ADCC podium is one of the most prestigious accomplishments in modern martial arts. Few are honored enough to even earn their way into the tournament. Those who do will battle against the top one percent of grapplers worldwide to earn the title, ADCC Champion. 

Unlock this article, live events, and more with a subscription!

Get Started

Already a subscriber? Log In

Top 5 Most Controversial Competitors In Jiu-Jitsu

Haters, brawls, dirty moves, drugs and rivalries, these polarizing competitors always get caught up in the mix.

Unlock this article, live events, and more with a subscription!

Get Started

Already a subscriber? Log In