Meet the Couple Running a Surf Camp and Jiu Jitsu Academy in Panama
John and Carla have a life most of us dream about. They wake up every day to the sight of ocean waves. Drink some coffee, feed the pup, grab their newborn, Marlee Jane, and head down to Beach Break Surf Camp for a day of surfing, martial arts, and providing hotel guests with a truly unmatchable experience.
How did John– from Ocean City, New Jersey and Carla, from Córdoba, Argentina– create such a remarkable life? It all comes from their passion for helping others harness Jiu Jitsu and surfing for a more fulfilling and connected lifestyle.
We sat down with John and Carla to talk about their journey and what Playa Venao has to offer aspiring surfers and martial artists. With a babbling baby in the background, here’s what they had to say.
What brought you to Panama in the first place?
John: I was invited down in 2013 to visit a friend's mixed martial arts gym in Panama City. That was Steven, who I would eventually start the Alley Cat Fitness Foundation with. I loved the environment and could really see the potential so, I decided to move to Panama to help manage and grow the gym.
Carla: I came with my parents when I was 18. I worked many different jobs over the years... usually in restaurants or bars. Many years later I started to work in gift shops and then I got into doing professional makeup for things like magazines and events.
How did you two meet?
Carla: Doing Jiu Jitsu!
John: Nahhhh… we met at Relic bar first. I tried to buy Carla a drink and she smoke bombed me! I turned around and she was gone. Then she showed up to the studio for a kickboxing class.
Carla: Well I had already had a few drinks!! So I got into a taxi and left. But we had been talking about Jiu Jitsu through a mutual friend and I knew I wanted to try it.
John: She wanted to learn how to strangle people. Always something she’s been interested in learning.
Carla: That was my first time in that world. I loved it right away because I realized even being small, I can really defend myself. If a bigger person comes along that doesn’t know about Jiu Jitsu, I can do whatever I want. Through technique, not strength. Just quick thinking and good technique and I can defend myself– it’s pretty cool. And I’m always the smallest in every class, haha.
Tell me more about the Alley Cat Fitness Foundation.
John: When I made the decision to move to Panama we found out there was a huge group of guys meeting up for... Fight Club, basically. The local neighborhood, Casco Viejo, is really gentrified. The larger community of San Felipe has squatter homes and some really bad poverty. But there were athletes buried in there, and they were really interested in combat sports– boxing, MMA, and Jiu Jitsu.
So these guys were already showing up, basically to beat the crap out of each other, so my partner and I put some organization behind it. We made it a foundation and started offering free classes to the community. The gym turned into a donation-based facility; if you can pay, great, if you can’t, don’t, but everyone has access to martial arts and fitness regardless of their financial situation.
We grew it to a pretty big fight team, both amateur and professional. At one point we had the #2 ranked 155-lb amatuer fighter in Central America, and we also had Panama’s first UFC fighter.
What kind of impact would you say Alley Cats had on the local community?
John: You know, you can’t fix everyone or anyone really– it’s on the person to make their own decisions, consistently show up to the gym and become a dedicated martial artist. But that’s kind of what the impact was… out of the hundreds of kids and adults we gave classes to, there’s a core group of about 20 guys and girls that now identify as martial artists.
Their identity is tied up with respect and dedication, and wanting to help the community in a way that’s indicative of being a real martial artist. So giving them a space to form that identity, get involved in that community and continue to train… once you really get into martial arts and start to identify with it, you’ll do it the rest of your life. That’s the biggest impact, we started and embedded a martial arts culture into the neighborhood that’s still going on today.
What inspired the move to Playa Venao?
John: We had just gotten engaged, and it struck me that I was an engaged 30-something guy and I was like well I kind of need to get my life together, because as fulfilling as the foundation was I was making $0 from it.
I was subsidizing everything with personal training classes which is not my favorite thing to do, so I was doing something I didn't love and still just barely getting by.
So I started working on myself and what kind of vision we wanted for our lives in the future. We just kind of put it out to the universe that we wanted to move to the beach, have a Jiu Jitsu academy and be a little more financially secure. As luck would have it, I met a guy who needed help with a real estate project in Playa Venao and he said “oh by the way there’s a hotel where you can start a Jiu Jitsu academy.” So it was a godsend, really. It perfectly matched up, all the stars were aligned, so we said yes and moved out here in 2017.
Carla: I always liked the simple life... I was pretty tired of the city, too. I came here 2 months before we moved to check out the hotel and I just loved the beach. It’s so beautiful. I grew up in in a little town in Argentina– it was similar to this but without the ocean. So I was very happy to come.
I’ve always been a little detached from [material] things, so it wasn't too hard for me to leave everything in the city. My parents are still in the city so I do miss them, but it’s 5 hours away and we both visit. But I love life in Venao… it’s a small community without a ton of things, but the things we have here are very good so we’re very happy. Everything came together for us to be here and we feel very lucky all the time.
Looks like Marlee Jane is enjoying beach life as well?
Carla: Oh yes, we’re starting to put her in the sea! She’ll start Jiu Jitsu training when she’s a little older, but everytime we go to train, I take her and she watches all the classes. When John gives technique, she’s always watching. She loves the pool, we are starting little by little to take her out. And gardening!
John: She watches us train and she’ll laugh. She is gonna know so much about all that, she’s gonna choke everybody. I can’t wait.
Carla: It’s a great life. We are all jealous of her.
How would you describe the connection between Jiu Jitsu and surfing?
John: I talk about this all the time and there are so many parallels. They are both one of those things that take all of your concentration.
It's kind of like meditation. When you’re surfing– watching, catching, and surfing that wave– everything you got has to be dedicated to that moment. Very much like in martial arts. When you’re in combat, there are consequences for daydreaming or not having total focus. You get tapped out, just like in a wave you get wiped out.
Carla: Right, and you can't just tap out when a huge wave is coming your way. You need to move!
John: What I like to say is– in combat, in Jiu Jitsu, you’re playing with each other’s human nature. In surfing, you’re playing with Mother Nature in the water. You’re dancing around, using it for fun, but there are consequences involved. Fighting a person is an amazing exchange of energy between two people, just like surfing is an amazing energy exchange between you and nature.
Have you seen guests– who maybe don’t have experience in Jiu Jitsu or surfing– be able to make that connection?
John: You know it’s not a mandatory thing, some people come just to surf or just for Jiu Jitsu and that’s fine. But for those who do try Jiu Jitsu, I’ve had several people write emails months later thanking me for introducing them to it. They’ll say “Hey I’m training everyday, I found a local gym, I love it.” That’s happened quite a few times. Which again kind of ties into identity... it's a lifestyle change. There’s a shift in your community and there are a lot of really positive things that go along with that.
It’s cool, people come to surf, they pop their head in the door of a Jiu Jitsu class, they get interested, try it, and some of them love it and continue to train.
Any plans for social impact initiatives, like you had in Panama City?
John: Yea, we have a sponsorship program for any kids that qualify from local neighborhoods. By qualify, I just mean you have to have decent grades, keep up with your school work, be signed up by the parents– and make an effort to show up and be consistent.
We have a few kids in the program now, but they’re not always able to get to the gym for training. My vision is to set up a community gym in nearby Cañas– a martial arts club with wrestling, boxing… I’ll go out there once a week and work with the kids on the mats and hopefully from there I can hook a few more in to come to the gym here and train more regularly.
Are you looking to get other Jiu Jitsu or martial arts groups involved?
John: I’m starting to reach out to different academy owners throughout the U.S to invite them to Beach Break. The idea is, they would come and train and surf with their team and, if they’re up for it, they can bring some equipment to donate to kids in the city or at the beach.
We would also love to see martial artists come and get into volunteering… or just exchanging information and knowledge. That’s one of my favorite things. When I first came to Panama I didn’t speak Spanish, but I could get on the mats with these guys, show them an arm bar and blow their minds. We would have conversations without words about fighting and combat and aspects of martial arts. That’s a really special thing, to be able to connect with other people across a language barrier. I would love to bring that experience to other martial artists as well.
Martial arts aside, what does a guest have to look forward to when visiting Beach Break?
John: You know, what’s hardest to put a finger on is the vibe and the energy around our camp. It’s the one thing I wish I could explain to people better.
We have a really chill, laid-back, almost family atmosphere. People feel really comfortable lounging in our outdoor space, chilling in the hammocks, meeting people from all over the world. It’s a really friendly inviting open place. It feels good to be here. A lot of people refer to it, myself included, as their happy place.
Tell me about the surf camp.
John: We have such an amazing surf staff– our head instructor, Brent, is a legend. He’s taught thousands of hours of surf and he’s really dedicated the time to building a curriculum, mapping out the steps and progressions, going through video analysis. He’s really involved in improving the surfing of our guests and has helped them achieve some amazing progress– so much that we have people return 3-4 times specifically to continue training with Brent.
The break is absolutely perfect for new surfers– then, moving down into the point, you can get more and more advanced. So it’s just a playground as far as the surf and the quality of surf instruction.
What else can guests do at Beach Break?
John: We have our modern fitness facility with yoga classes, group fitness, Muy Thai and of course Jiu Jitsu. We’re getting into spiritual classes like meditation and sound healing. We have a beachfront restaurant with good, healthy food. We can arrange other activities for our guests like zip-lining, horseback riding on the beach, and eco tours like whale watching. Everything’s here and it’s nice, easy, and high quality. And it’s not blown up yet. It doesn’t feel overcrowded. We only have 14 rooms in the hotel so even if we're at capacity, it doesn’t feel like you’re packed in.
What are your plans for the future?
John: As a manager and business owner, I would love to do more Jiu Jitsu-involved surf camps– really honing that connection that we talked about- interacting more with the local community as well as yoga and fitness retreats. We want to make it a space for people to come together, share, and experience as a group. We’re always looking to improve the hotel and our offerings. For us personally, we’re landowners here so we’ll be working on developing our lot, dreaming of the future for us and our family. We’re here for life so we’re looking forward to a long, happy journey.
Carla: I want to be the best example for Marlee Jane. I try to get better at everything. When she gives me time, I want to dive more Jiu Jitsu classes for women, for moms, and start getting better at surfing. I’m also excited to put more work into the land… gardening...helping with the development of our home and other houses… basically just being the best I can be.
Last question– what are the chances of doing Jiu Jitsu on a stand-up paddleboard?
John: You might do a little King of the Hill thing where you have to knock the other person off the board. We’ll save that for your next visit.