By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV
January 15, 2023
What does it take to build a world-class jiu jitsu gym? A physical therapist, a web developer, a rock violinist, and a 17-year old athletic phenom partnering up in southern West Virginia.
If you’ve driven by the old Sears Building at the top of the hill in Ronceverte lately wondering what’s going on inside, you won’t see a sign above the door. You won’t be able to find a parking place. And you won’t believe how many kids are grappling on the mats inside.
NOVA Jiu Jitsu is the brainchild of Rusty Nelson, Dan Kuprin, Adam Degraff, and Andrew Degraff. Their name, NOVA, is certainly fitting. The latin root can mean either “new” or “bright star.” This gym is both.
If you’re not familiar with jiu jitsu, it’s a self-defense combat sport. NOVA offers classes for children ages 4 & up and adults throughout the week. Over the past six months, student enrollment has skyrocketed.
New Program, New Building
In the summer of 2022, Andrew and Adam were leaving a practice next door in a smaller building they rented for their students. They parked in front of the old Sears building. Andrew looked at it as they were leaving and said to his dad, “Imagine how much we could do with this program if we had this building?”
A month later, they had it. Degraff, a local businessman and noted musician, says, “We didn’t build this business the way they teach you in business school! We’re just a great team with all the right pieces.”
Rusty Nelson is a local physical therapist. He teaches and competes in jiu jitsu as well, but his real focus is on improving health outcomes. “Locally and globally, we have inactivity issues,” he says. “That plays into issues of obesity with kids and adults as well as our diminishing health care. We need to be more active, and it’s easier to get active when you’re having fun. Modifying behavior is hard to do. We have gyms and outdoor recreation. We are offering another avenue for people to get active and have fun.”
Dan Kuprin is a web developer by day and a black belt by night. The students call him “the professor.” You can see his incredible athleticism when he does something as innocuous as tying his shoes. He focuses on the self-defense roots of the sport. “The philosophy of jiu jitsu is what I want to bring to the forefront,” he explains. “You get into shape, you make friends, and you change your life in a positive direction. It provides mental clarity. You can integrate the philosophy of the sport into your life to make it better.”
Adam Degraff is a professional musician. He took his kids to jiu jitsu years ago and eventually began training himself. He teaches many of the kid’s classes today and focuses on the community development the gym provides. “I want this to be a ‘third place,’” Adam says with a smile. “After work/school and home, I want this gym to be a place where people can come because they know they belong and can get healthy together.” He talks about the lessons they teach not just being about the sport but about life in general. “Jiu jitsu is about being comfortable in uncomfortable situations. What better life lesson is there? Life isn’t going to be perfect. You’re going to suck sometimes. This program is about helping people grow, learn, and make good decisions under duress.”
And then there’s Adam’s son, Andrew. They call him “the superstar” and “the show pony.” He looks like your average teenager, but Andrew is ranked #20 in the world in his weight division. Google him. You can see him grapple with rough and tough guys from across the world who are twice his age with three times his experience…and he wins. Why does he, a rising star, spend so much time teaching others? “I wanted to create a space for people at all levels of the sport,” says the younger Degraff, with a poise beyond his years. “My dream is to have an academy that can be a great kid’s academy and a great competitive academy at the same time. Because that’s not normal in the sport. We want to do it all.”
Rusty, Dan, and Adam help train Andrew. They all agree his success benefits them all. “What he does pressure tests what we do,” says Rusty. “If what we teach him holds up against the best in the world, then it will hold up for our students.”
Dan believes Andrew’s success is contagious. “He shows kids there’s an avenue from rural West Virginia to anywhere they want to go. They can say, ‘I can be the world’s best anything.’ They also see how hard he works to reach his dream.”
Adam beams as he talks about Andrew’s impact on the program. “They see him on TV beating up some tough dudes, and then he’s on the mat with them wiping their nose and tying their belt. He doesn’t just teach them; he shows them selflessness, which is part of jiu jitsu, by his example.”
NOVA offers multiple classes and programs currently–adult classes, kid’s classes, and women’s self-defense classes. Numerous volunteer coaches (who themselves are high-level students) support Dan, Rusty, Adam, and Andrew. Their clients range from medical students to law enforcement officers and everything in between. The kids program draws dozens of children three times per week. Parents describe a unique atmosphere where their children are challenged physically and mentally but at the same time receive tremendous support to grow. For Adam, safety is always priority number one. He preaches it to the kids at every class, and they respond, “Yes sir!”
These classes are only the beginning. Expansion plans include an indoor climbing wall, a cafe, and a robust afterschool program. Adam can already picture it, “I want to see an army of children here that will go out into our community and help. Not only are they not causing problems but they are actually creating solutions. To me that’s the future of our community.” NOVA leadership insists that finances will never be an obstacle for any child that wants to participate, particularly in the afterschool program. They say they will never turn anyone away because of affordability.
“Any kid that wants to be part of the afterschool program, will be,” says Adam. “We will raise the money. If they want to be here, even if they can’t afford it, we will make it happen.”
Already, kids come from all over the region (including Virginia) to participate. That’s all part of the plan, according to Andrew. “One of our goals is can we create a place where people come to the Greenbrier Valley for jiu jitsu and stay for everything else we offer? Yes, we already are seeing that.”
“A Premier Gym”
Rusty believes they are well on the way to building a premier gym. “All that people (in the jiu jitsu world) have to do is see the area one time–river trail, shops, food, the people, and they want to be here.” They don’t just want an average gym or even a good gym. They want to be a premier gym that is a destination. So far, so good. Rusty says, “Once they come, they come back and bring their families. It’s working.”
Dan thinks back to when they first decided to build NOVA. They were afraid it was too much space for them. But last Friday night, the whole building was full. He smiles as he says, “If you work together, you can do anything. That’s what we are teaching the kids.”
For more information, visit Nova Jiu Jitsu on Facebook.