John Hokanson had no idea how bad it could get.
Hokanson, the co-owner of Fiorelli Winery and Vineyard in Bradenton with his wife, Kristin Hokanson, thought living in the Lakewood Ranch area would be a dream for a kid.
When Hokanson's family member, Jayke Maracle, began living with the family in the fall of 2022, Hokanson learned he was wrong. Being a kid in 2023 can still be difficult, even in a place like this.
Maracle is now a freshman at Lakewood Ranch High, but last year as a middle school student, Maracle showed Hokanson some videos of hallway fights and bullying incidents that would go viral in the area. It wasn't just the physical altercations that worried Hokanson, either. Social media accounts mean cyberbullying is a real threat, and with how much time kids spend on their phones these days, its prevalence is only growing. For an unlucky selection of kids, the tough times never end.
After Maracle himself faced a bullying incident, back when he was in middle school in a bathroom, Hokanson decided to get Maracle prepared, both physically and mentally, if another incident should arise.
He wanted Maracle to be tough, and to know he could get through whatever he faced in life.
To that end, he turned to a sport Hokanson himself had left behind: Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Hokanson started in the martial art 13 years ago. He would pass Sarasota's Vieira BJJ on his daily drive, and it intrigued him. He was born in Brazil and thought he owed it to himself to try the sport and to connect to his past. One day, Hokanson got the courage to walk in. Vieira Martial Arts Academy owner Thadeu Vieira welcomed him with a hug, Hokanson said. He stuck with the sport and even competed at the 2012 World Master Jiu Jitsu Championship in Long Beach, California, earning a silver medal in the White Senior One Male class, Super-Heavy division. He also saw how the sport gave its competitors confidence off the mat. If you succeed there, you can succeed anywhere.
"The whole philosophy is to make competitors better citizens," Hokanson said. "If you're strong and confident and feel good about yourself, you're not going to go down that rabbit hole of feeling like you have nothing."
After four years of BJJ, Hokanson stopped training when his business ventures took off. He simply didn't have the time to devote to it. But he valued his experience. When thinking of ways to prepare Maracle for the world, BJJ was at the top of Hokanson's mind. So he took Maracle to see an old friend — Vieira.
When Hokanson walked into Vieira BJJ with Maracle, Vieira gave Hokanson another hug and told Hokanson he missed him. Hokanson reciprocated. He then said Maracle was looking for a place to train. Vieira welcomed him with open arms, metaphorical ones this time.
Maracle did well, learning the sport through consistent practice and competing in events here and there. Hokanson would work with Maracle at their home on occasion and gave him pointers at tournaments. Maracle was learning, but sometimes, Maracle would complain to Hokanson about his class being difficult. He would say Hokanson didn't want what it was like today. Hokanson thought about it, and figured Maracle was right. For Maracle to fully buy into the sport and to see what it could do for a person, Hokanson had to be the one to show him. So he returned to the sport himself.
Even after nine years away from BJJ, Hokanson quickly fell back into the routine. Not only did training allow him to relate to Maracle on a new level, but his old skills came back. Hokanson even decided to give the World Master Jiu-Jitsu Championship another shot. At the 2023 Championship, held Aug. 21-Sept. 2 in Las Vegas, Hokanson reached the semifinal round in the Master Seven Male Blue class, Super-Heavy division. During his semifinal match, Hokanson was thrown to the mat. He felt something snap.
"I thought, I sure hope that's his wrist," Hokanson said with a laugh. It wasn't. "I looked down and my radius was sticking out this way, and my wrist was sticking the other way."
The broken wrist meant Hokanson could not continue so he tapped out and settled for a bronze medal. He still is wearing a cast on his wrist. The rehab process has not been fun, but the experience was valuable for himself, and for Maracle.
"My wife asked me, 'Was it worth it?'" Hokanson said. "The broken arm? No. But the statement you can make to your children? Yes. Get out there and do it with your kids. Understand the pressure they are under and their fears."
Maracle agrees. He said taking up BJJ has helped him gain the confidence he wanted him to find. The other competitors in the gym are more than willing to give him advice when needed. He's even taken some of Hokanson's natural ability. Maracle took a silver medal in his Boys White Teen III division of the Siesta Key Open tournament in May.
Maracle and Hokanson recommend that everyone interested in bettering themselves take up a martial art. Age doesn't matter, as these two have shown. And though they train with Vieira BJJ, there are plenty of good clubs in Manatee and Sarasota counties that people can join. It's the discipline that matters most. On Sept. 23, the pair were at the Sarasota BJJ Open, held at Sarasota's Robert L. Taylor Community Complex, an event that served as both a tournament and an anti-bullying campaign. If kids want proof that the self-improvement aspect of the sport works, have them listen to Maracle.
"I love it," Maracle said. "You get to make friends and you get to have fun. You get hands-on learning. It cures your boredom. You learn how to defend yourself and you can compete in tournaments with the skills you learn. I didn't want to do it at first, but after a while I started to like it. I am glad I stuck with it I'm not scared of anything now."