Every two years Systema HQ in Toronto has a Systema Camp, its a week long training camp where Systema practitioners from across the globe meet up and train together. Its held at this beautiful camp site a few hours north of Toronto with a forest and a lake. This is my write up for 2012 camp that I originally wrote in January of 2013.
For quite some time I have been wanting to go to this Systema Camp and this last year i was finally able to make it. The plan was that this camp/trip should fit nicely after my summer college courses and right before my fall semester started. It would give me a chance to get some great training in, make some new friends and unwind from the last semester by punching people from other countries right in the face (and vice versa).
Leading up to camp…
As I got closer to to the 2012 Systema Camp trip, I found out that my dates where off, and that Tuesday of that week is the same day as my summer college course final exam. Well that’s a problem. Figuring that it wont be that big of a deal, I went and visited my professor to see if i can do the final before or after my trip. I met up with him and explained my situation, told him i leave the Sunday before the final and wont be back until the Monday after the final. I gave him a whole sad story to try and get his sympathy. He listened and paused. “You know what…maybe there is something i can do to help you” he said. “Yes!” i though, “this will all work out.” He then said, in a way that sounded like he truly thought he was doing me a favor: “Instead of Tuesday you can take your final on Wednesday.” “Wednesday? Of the week i get back? That would be perfect!” I responded. “No, the day after the scheduled final, that Wednesday.” he says. “That Wednesday? I will be gone the WHOLE week, that Wednesday is even worse that Tuesday.” “Well that’s to bad then, if you don’t show up for your final you will fail the course.” He stated. Well we never came up with a agreement.
Now between a rock and a hard place, i then take my problem to his direct boss, and eventually to the Dean of the department. They both gave me pretty much the same responses: “Doing it before or after you get back seems totally reasonable. Who is your professor?” “Professor ******” I answer. “Oh!…of course its him, I should have known…” Long story short they both then said that they are sorry and he is following the University rules and only he (the Professor) can change the date for me. So no luck.
I then contacted Toronto to tell them of my problem and they where as helpful as possible. To make that story short, they told me that coming in late on Wednesday would be fine. They know who I am and they said that the first few days are covering the basics, stuff i should already know, so i should be fine. The main things i would miss are the first water fighting seminar and the first night forest fighting seminar but those both will be revisited later in the week. Toronto HQ also said that to make up for my lost days they will wave the fee for the two day after seminars for that Sunday and Monday at HQ, which are designed as summaries for the week. Awesome.
Once I got that squared away I had to change my flight from the Sunday before to that Wednesday morning and it was not cheap.
Week of Camp
The weekend before and that Monday that was planned to be for rest before Systema Camp, I spent studying my ass off for that test. Took the test Tuesday afternoon, packed that night, on the plane Wednesday morning at 6am. In Canada around 10am, on the bus for a fun 2-3 hour drive with the nicest Canadian teenager they could find. Made it to camp grounds just in time for lunch break at 1pm. Though I was very glad to finally arrive, to say I was a little stressed about the whole thing up to this point would be a bit of a under statement.
The camp and the lake site is just gorgeous.
You have the choice to stay in a cabin or bring your own camp gear to Systema Camp. Not wanting to bring my own gear I choose the cabin, but I knew my friends at BigDSystema was bringing camping gear. So I had the option of staying with them if I wanted to. The campsite itself is designed for kids, so the cabins and the bunks are on the small side, as in your legs are hanging off the end at the knee small. Talking to the people in my cabin who have been here a few days, if given the choice of staying in the cabin or having a tent they all would choose a tent hands down, especially if its one you could stand in. So I soon moved in with the guys I knew from BigD in their nice big tent.
We then headed to the chow hall for food, I was warned a head of time that last Systema Camp the food was terrible and was the number one complainant. The food they fed us this time was probably some of the best food i have ever had, almost worth the trip right there.
At this years camp the main instructors where Vladimir Vasiliev, Valentin Talanov, and Konstantin Komarov.
Sunday, the first Systema Camp day that I missed, was set as a general meet and great and to have everyone settle in to their camp sites and cabins. Monday and Tuesday (i missed these as well) was more towards the fitness and basics of Systema and included a ‘intro’ to water fighting and a pitch black work in the forest. The first pitch black night work in the forest at Systema Camp has been said to be a lot of people favorite portion of the camp. They take you out at dusk through a trail in the woods to a clearing. Here you will train until it is to dark to see your hand in front of your own face. The instructors then “disappear” and you have to find your own way back on your own in the dark. This was done the night before i arrived. The theme for Wednesday was strikes, Thursday was grappling, Friday was knifes, Saturday was mass/group attacks and other miscellaneous topics.
Normally you will wake up about 5-6am for morning exercise. Here you would be doing some stretches and push ups and some warming up exercises based on what was scheduled. Then have breakfast. After breakfast, you have morning training, then lunch. Then afternoon training, then dinner. And finally night training. Tradition has it that you must take a dip in the (freezing) lake between each activity.
Without really having time to truly settle in on Wednesday I was thrown into my first event. For each Systema Camp session we would split into groups based on experience, beginner, intermediate, and instructor. I was a bit confused when my BigD friends had me follow them to the intermediate group since we where all certified instructors-in-training. We where working on strikes with Konstantin in a asphalted area and it was a great experience. It then started to rain and we merged with the instructor group for a while. The instructor group then broke off to perform the striking portion of their test (there was 4 tests scheduled over all and this was the first), i turned to my guys and told them. “You know we are supposed to be with them right?” Both of them being a bit modest did not believe me. “Seriously, we are missing our instructor test”, I told them as the intermediate group left the instructor group to test, and we finished our session back outside.
During the evening rest I had a good chance to talk to Vladimir and Valerie. We discussed about training in Texas, upcoming events, and they confirmed that my group where scheduled to be in the Instructor group at Systema Camp. The next day we started with training in the water, and man that was interesting. I was partnered up for some time with a nice big guy from Scotland who straight up told me he did not like water and he wanted to apologize before hand on how uncooperative he will soon be because of his dislike for water, he was a tough one. The most interesting thing i learned was what a shock it is to the body when you are submerged. I feel pretty comfortable in the water, but the shock you get each time someone throws you under is something one can work through, i don’t think you can truly ever get over.
That evening i finally got my group to talk to Val and Vlad about them being in the instructor group, not sure what all they said but it lead to a pretty big miss understanding on Friday evening. Friday was weapons day, that morning we had to go and pick our own stick from the forest (well to save time they had a pile premade to choose from) and we did stick work all morning. That afternoon was spent more with knifes both in the field and in the forest, great training. Then at the end we where to be split for the knife portion of the test (3rd out of 4 tests). Valerie comes out saying that there has been some mix ups this week about who is or is not in the instructor group (mostly by our group, sorry), and that if you where even thinking about one day possibly being a instructor that you should be in the instructor group. so instead of the instructor group being pretty small group, we now had the majority of the people by far. This annoyed Valentine Talanov who was in charge of the instructors because it became very apparent that the new larger group was not ready to test, so instead of testing as before this turned into just another knife seminar. He then postponed the knife test for he next day, in replacement of the ‘teaching’ test. We where told that for the teaching test we where to split into small groups, each group with one ‘senior or master’ instructor and we would all show our ability to teach Systema. So originally there would be 3 practical tests (strikes, grappling, weapons(knife)) and then a teaching test, instead we would just end up with just the practical portions.
That evening at dusk we did broke up into groups of six, one person would be the wounded, and the other 5 was to carry them into the forest clearing through the trail. Once there the group was to split up and we worked on knifes until it was pitch black. This was interesting because the training knives where reflective. So by the end all you would see was the reflective shine of the blade as it came at you. At the end you must find your original group, and then carry the wounded back to camp in pitch black night. This was tricky because you truly could not see in front of you at all. What we ended up doing was having scout go infront of the group to find the path while we shuffle footed behind them. Eventually we reached camp, we where not the first but we where not he last either.
For Saturday we did a lot of group and mass attack work at Systema Camp and the evening was set aside for the Knife test. This time you where called to the test by name so we did not have the same problem as the day before. For the the tests we would sit in a large circle, two people would go into the circle, one would be testing and another would be feeding the strikes/whatever. Once done the one being tested would sit down, the attacker would become the one being tested and a new person would be the attacker until everyone is done. Watching all of the tests, it was interesting to see every ones skill levels along with their personal twist based on their country and personality. Some of the guys up there where just amazing, others not so much. I was really surprised how defense against a knife really showed every ones differences, for both good and for bad, that was not shown during the other tests. One guy from Asia, his work against the knife was not Systema in any shape or form. He was very good and was impressive but it was straight up Kung fu. Kung fu stances and kung fu movements. At the end of his test Valentine Talanov called him out on it by telling him that what he was doing was not Systema.
Then my turn came up. Defense against the knife is pretty stressful, and unlike my other tests that week my movement became very aggressive, in other words, not very Systema. I went up and felt that i performed well and was confident in my movement and on passing the test. I felt great, it was a great release of the stress i built up the weeks before, i even felt a bit euphoric afterwords, well until i sat back down. “Oh man what did he do to make you so angry?” i was asked by the guy next to me. “It looked like you where out for blood out there, you tore that guy a new one!”. “Uh oh” i thought to myself, i must have failed. A ‘messenger’ then came up to me while the others where testing. “Valerie and Valentine want to talk to you when this is over.” he told me. Sigh…yep i failed.
At the end of the test, Val told the group to go rest up, unless she requested to talk to you after, those people stay.
While waiting for my turn on the chopping block, I would eavesdrop on those in front of me. Each person was being told in slightly different ways that they failed the final test. What was interesting was what she would tell them after they where told they failed. “…You can try again next camp (in two years).” “…you can try again next year.” “you can try again in about 6 months” “3 months” “…in a few weeks” or the worst one: “eventually”. The Kung Fu guy got “eventually”, “You are very skillful, but what you did was not Systema, eventually once you gain a better understanding you can try again.” Soon enough it was my turn.
“What happened?” she asked. “You have been so perfect all week! What happened in there?” “It was like watching a whole other person! That was not like you at all! You seem so angry and aggressive, it was all a bit scary! (she laughs a bit)” “I’m sorry” I answered, “In addition to Systema i train in a few other styles as well, some include some pretty aggressive knife work.” “I could see that, you where very good in there, but it was to aggressive for what we wanted to see today.” “I’m sorry” i told her, disappointed. “Oh don’t be disappointed! You’re good! Think of this as a learning experience and a chance to reflect. Send us a email in a couple of weeks, in fact, you can send it to use right when you get home. I would not be surprised if you where fully certified by the end of the month.”
Disappointed i headed back to our tent, only one out of our Dallas group to fail. “Man you looked so vicious in there!” they told me. “Yea, well it cost me the test.”. That evening was designed to be a celebration of the weeks work. There was great food and some great Vodka. The Russian group and the UK group got involved in a loud drinking song competition. “Yo Texas!” (my nickname there, for i was the only in our group born in Texas, one was from South Africa, the other from Russia from BigD) the UK yelled at me. “Come sing us a Texan drinking song!” “A Texan song while drinking Russian Vodka and Canadian beer? I would get shot back home!” I answer back, laughing them off. Better answer i guess than telling them the truth: that i could not think of any (ill have one for next time). Eventually we all got kicked out of the mess hall and headed back to the camp sites in a smaller groups. The UK group would then go from cabin to cabin, tent to tent singing songs and drinking beer. Everyone got rather drunk and it was a lot of fun.
Everyone was running a bit slow the next morning’s workout. Afterwords we all packed up for the ride back to Toronto, I was staying and leaving Monday after the seminar so I took the bus to Systema HQ. That night we had a small group, pretty much all experienced guys. This allowed for a great night class. That night we went out to some good burger joint and wondered around downtown for a while. A few guys, including me, where staying the night at the school. Sitting around all evening and night allowed me a lot of time to reflect on the week.
I realized though, that even though i enjoyed the whole week, i felt the best at Systema Camp after the knife test. Though it caused me to fail the test it allowed me to physically release a lot of the tension i built up the week before dealing with school. I felt that all the stress of dealing with the university, all the extra stress of having to switch flights and the monetary costs that came with. It all made for a pretty stressful trip, one that was meant to be relaxing. Once i failed and that went away i was really able to enjoy my time there. I was able to really talk with guys from other countries. We had guys from Japan, England, Scotland, France, India, Italy, all across the US, South America, from over 20 countries in all. Where else could you go and train with such a diverse group of guys with the same goal? So at the end of it all i kind of wished i failed it sooner and i wonder if i would have had this realization if i did not fail at all.
During the ‘review’ seminar at Systema HQ, it was asked if there was any instructors that needed to be renewed. I figured I came all this way, and I learned so much, I might as well try again. Valerie at first did not understand why i was so persistent and in such a hurry. To me there is just something about passing your test in person, in front of the head instructors. She then told Vladimir who responded “Him? Isn’t he already Instructor?” they then spoke only in Russian, he then turned to me a smiled in the way only he can and took me to be retested. We then proceeded to do some basic movement work and then into some strikes work. “Have you been under a lot of stress?” He asked me. I then explained to him everything that happened over the last few weeks while we worked on some drills. “Ah yes, i remember now…” he responded. “I watched you this week” he said, “you are with Cash’s group at BigD. You did real well and helped out a lot of the newer guys. They are lucky to have you. ” He then struck me hard in the stomach, smiled, and said I was good and not to worry about it.
I then left soon after for the airport with a new certificate and instructors shirt. Can’t wait for the next Systema Camp!