Gis and Grip Tape: Couple Launches Dual CrossFit and Martial Arts Gym

January 24, 2023 by
Photo Credit: Barkeater Athletics
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When Paul Slebioda met Ellen Hoepfinger in 2017, little did either of them know the love they shared for fitness would bring them to where they are today. The couple recently relocated to Jonesborough, TN to open a gym named BarkEater Athletics that brings both their passions together—CrossFit and martial arts.

While Slebioda and Hoepfinger are new to Tennessee, they began their gym back in 2019 in the Adirondack region of northern New York, where the couple taught group classes as well as Judo & Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In June of 2020 they affiliated with CrossFit and became BarkEater CrossFit. 

Hoepfinger not only is a CrossFitter, she also holds a black belt in Judo and a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Slebioda is a CF-L2 CrossFit now, but was first drawn to the sport after watching CrossFit on YouTube and couldn’t do an overhead squat with a PVC pipe “to save my life.” 

The two hit it off after Hoepfinger was Slebioda’s Uber driver in 2017. After some time as a long distance couple Slebioda moved to Saranac Lake, New York where Hoepfinger was located and the couple opened their first gym together. 

  • “I followed her up there and took a short term rental and ended up in Saranac Lake and we fell in love, we were already in love,” said Slebioda. 
  • “We felt like they really compliment CrossFit in that the methodology is similar. Technique first and maximum efficiency with minimum effort is really the mantra of Judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. So we thought they would complement each other perfectly and we kind of run our program that way,” he added. 

Hoepfinger says Judo and Jiu-Jitsu are the most widely used self defense and police training military programs. They both derive from grappling art, which is a broad term sometimes used for various types of martial arts. 

She further explains that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu comes from Judo’s groundwork and Judo focuses on the stand up piece. 

“So the practical principles of both are the same, but they’re different in that the sport of Judo focuses on the stand up game (sweep, foot sweeps, throws and trips) over the ground working. Whereas conversely Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu focuses on ground transitions and control submissions through chokes and joint locks with less of an emphasis on the stand up game.” 

  • Hoepfinger adds, she found CrossFit shortly after starting Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and “it was just an immediate connection wanting to get that heart rate up and be strong.” 
  • “It just transferred so well over into Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, where you have to be strong, athletic, get that heart rate up, and be strong while you’re tired, so the two practices went hand in hand.”

Someone who knows a bit about training both is CrossFit legend Jason Khalipa. The 2008 CrossFit Games champion has trained Jiu-Jitsu and CrossFit simultaneously for several years now. 

  • “I think that in CrossFit people get super fit, but they don’t work as dynamically because the barbell doesn’t move on you, there’s nothing coming back at you. So incorporating Jiu-Jitsu from a fitness perspective is nice because it switches it up where you have some events coming at you that you have to adapt to unlike CrossFit where it’s kind of already predetermined for you,” said Khalipa. 
  • He compares Jiu-Jitsu to the game of chess and says Jiu-Jitsu athletes tend to focus on the dynamic movement as opposed to the strength and conditioning portion of the sport.
  • “I think they’re not reaching their potential because they’re not utilizing the weights in a constructive way. So I think that blend is the secret.”

Khalipa adds, athletes shouldn’t be intimidated and if they are, begin by just watching Jiu Jitsu (or Judo) first and then make the first step. He suggests beginning with some private martial arts training sessions to get your feet wet and gain an understanding of the sport and then move onto group classes thereafter. 

“I would encourage people to try Jiu-Jitsu, give it six months and see what physical potential it unlocks, and then I would guarantee you they won’t regret it six months down the line,” said Khalipa. “They’ll feel like they unlocked new potential out of their body that they never experienced before.”

Armen Hammer, a media personality with a background in CrossFit and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, is a proponent of CrossFit athletes trying something new to continue improving their capabilities. 

  • “For most people they love the community. They love the activity, but they stopped sort of improving at a rapid rate. And the way you start improving again is to do more. Apply yourself more, do more things off the gym floor, just do other things outside of the gym,” said Hammer. 
  • “You know, dial into your nutrition or spend more time reading. But the draw of being a novice and learning things that are completely brand new and having that progression. You know, that’s something that exists in spades in Judo and Jiu-Jitsu,” he continued. 

Slebioda and Hoepfinger moved to Tennessee to be closer to family and hope to bring their experience and love of both martial arts and CrossFit to their community through BarkEater Athletics. They moved into the space in November and recently opened their doors offering group classes and personal training options. 

“What we say, and we really try to preach is hard work, in that nothing in life comes easy,” said Slebioda. “The more willing you are to get uncomfortable the more likely it is you’re going to achieve those goals.”

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