While driving to Northern Virginia on a weekend in late July, Dan Ricker realized that he knew little about a martial arts tournament he had entered. Ricker was not sure of much more than the competition would feature tough opponents in the relatively unknown sport of submission grappling, a no-holds-barred combination of jiu-jitsu and wrestling.
Ricker, who lives on the Howard County side of Sykesville, found a big surprise waiting for him in Chantilly, Va. The competition wasn't just a high-level competition in a sport he had taken up less than three months earlier. It was the World Kickboxing and Karate Association-USA national championships. Ricker, however, delivered his own surprise that day: The 39-year-old won two gold medals and a silver medal.
And, said the full-time homebuilder, he fell more in love with the sport.
Ricker's longtime interest in wrestling drew him to submission grappling this spring. He wrestled and played football at Glenelg High School before playing football at Towson University.
Ricker coached wrestling at Oakland Mills High from 1988 to 1992, earning county titles each year. Although, Ricker has not coached at the varsity level for several years, he has been a longtime coach in youth-level wrestling in Howard County.
He said he had been hearing about submission grappling, which martial-arts references say evolved out of a Brazilian form of fighting.
"I got tired of thinking about [it], and I just wanted to know [what it was about]," Ricker said. "It was killing me. People told me that with a wrestling background, you'll win."
Ricker found his way to the Evolve Academy of Martial Arts in Gaithersburg, which he was told was a prime spot to experience the sport. The school is owned by Mike Moses, a professional kickboxer, holder of a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and for 30 years a student of and competitor in muay Thai, a street-fighting martial art that originated in Thailand.
In submission grappling, competitors face one another for one seven-minute period with running time. Each combatant, basically, does anything possible to make the other submit and quit. Choking is one of the moves commonly used; kicks to just about anywhere on the body are allowed.
"I went into the gym and got choked by someone 70 pounds lighter the first night - five times," Ricker said. "Then I became a believer. I never had anything impress me so much. I missed my calling."
Ricker has quickly impressed Moses, especially with the work ethic that has made him so good so fast.
"He's just an all-around animal," said Moses, meaning that as a compliment. "He's always trying to pick my brain, and he definitely took a fast track to success."
Ricker's two gold medals at the national tournament came in competition for 30-and-older fighters who weigh more than 200 pounds, and then in open competition (any age) for those over 200 pounds.
Ricker's silver medal came in an unusual way. In the open-elite division - for anyone in the tournament, regardless of weight - he advanced to the finals, but his opponent weighed about 100 pounds less than he did. Tournament officials had some concerns about that and decided the best way to settle the championship would be to flip a coin, especially because this was considered an informal type of challenge.
Ricker lost the toss, but having fought seven exhausting bouts already, he said it did not bother him much.
"I was hurting for about three days afterwards," he said.
Jenny Ricker, Dan's wife, also was stunned when she realized the tournament was a national competition - especially when seeing what the sport involved.
"I kind of thought we were going to more of a wrestling match, and I get there, and they're choking each other," she said. "I just took it in stride."
Ricker said he enjoys the sport so much that he would love to open up some kind of business with it down the line.
"He can go as far as he can with it," said his wife. "If he likes it, why not do it? It's not that often that we find things we like, so why not do it?"
Ricker said submission grappling has touched him in a way other than just liking it, explaining that submission grappling involves two opponents doing whatever they can to make the other man give up, quit and stop over a seven-minute period.
It is a metaphor for many of the things people face in life, he said.
"When you're getting choked, when someone has their legs or arm around your neck, you really feel like you're going to die," Ricker said. "You're trying to have guts and hang in there. You find out what you're made of."
Ricker said he will enter more competitions, and he laughs when he thinks about going to a national tournament without being sure of the competition.
But that wasn't the worst thing in the world, he said.
"I walked in there not even knowing what I was going to."