COLUMBIANA, Ala. – When Alabama National Guard Pfc. Elioenai Campos enters the coliseum in July, it will be the culmination of 26 years of literal blood, sweat and tears.
Campos, an infantryman assigned to the 1-167th Infantry Battalion, will represent the United States in jiujitsu at the 2022 World Games July 15 in Birmingham, Alabama.
The World Games is an international multi-discipline competition similar to (and organized in coordination with) the Olympics held every four years to recognize the best athletes in more than 30 unique sports.
“It’s incredible,” Campos said. “It feels like everything in my life and everything I have been doing has happened for this moment right now.”
Campos is a native of Manaus, Brazil, where he grew up too poor to afford more than two meals a day. At 10 years old, he said, he started working to help earn money for his family — and buy his first jiujitsu gi.
His father encouraged him to “not just leave the city, but leave the country” to escape poverty. Campos saw Brazilian jiujitsu (BJJ) as his ticket to do so.
After more than a decade of training, he earned the opportunity to compete for the 2011 South American BJJ Championship. Due to a lack of money and sponsorship, Campos slept on the floor of an Argentinian police station the night before the tournament, but he still managed to claim the gold the next day.
“When I won, I finally felt like it is worth it to give everything — every little bit that you’ve got — for something bigger,” he said.
He said winning the continent’s top prize gave him the athletic credentials he needed to get a visa approved and fund his move to the United States.
Since then, he has opened a dojo in Columbiana and joined the Alabama National Guard to give back to the country he worked his entire life to get to.
Col. Mike Davenport, Alabama National Guard director of military support, met Campos through their shared passion for BJJ.
“He’s a higher belt than me, so I’ve always seen him in competitions and watched him roll,” Davenport said. “I’ve always been impressed with him. Whatever he does, he does 100 percent and with his whole heart. And not just 100 percent physical effort. He puts everything into it.”
That’s why Davenport was eager to help Campos through enlistment.
“Knowing his story, I was willing to go to bat for him,” he said. “He’s dedicated to doing what needs to be done. He has the tenacity to go after what needs to be gone after, and he has a genuine heartfelt love and desire to do the best he can do for his country.
“You can’t buy that kind of patriotism,” Davenport said.
To prepare for the World Games, Campos has traveled the state, country, and even back to Brazil for intensive training with masters of the sport.
Campos trains at three gyms four times per day five days per week, with a different training program on Saturdays and a rest day Sundays. His diet and supplement intake are also regulated to keep him strong, energized, and at his registered competition weight while staying under the strict anti-doping policies enforced by the International World Games Association and Olympic Committee.
It’s the kind of dedication others called him crazy for when he was younger.
“You can’t give up on things until you give the last of yourself,” he said. “If you’re still sweating, it means there’s still more in you to give. Until you dry up completely, you need to keep working and working.”
After so much training and a life of preparation, Campos said he’s ready to win it all at the World Games.
“Thinking about all my work and my journey and all my support,” he said, “it can’t go wrong. I’m just gonna go get something that’s mine. I just have to go get it.”
“I think he’s gonna win it,” he said. “He’s got the skill, he’s got the physical ability, and if it comes down to desire and drive,” Davenport paused, raising his eyebrows and shaking his head, “you ain’t gonna beat him.”
As the walls of Campos’s dojo — lined with dozens of medals — can attest, he’s won many tournaments before, but he says there’s one big difference this time.
“This time,” Campos said, “I’m not fighting for myself; I’m not fighting for a team. … I’m not fighting for the city.
“I will have a U.S. flag on my back, fighting for this nation.”
Campos will fight in the men’s 85kg weight class.