No place like home: USA boxers find right fit for tough times

USA’s Olympic Boxing hopefuls opened up to Tokyo2020 about the challenges of last year that led them to set up their training operation in a hotel ballroom before settling longer-term in an abandoned shopping centre department store.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Boxers have to roll with the punches.

A thick skin and a willingness to suffer are among the sport’s primary demands. So last year, when COVID-19 first turned the world upside down and Team USA’s boxers found themselves without a place to call home, they had to figure something out.

“In Team USA, we make the most of it!” promising bantamweight Bruce Carrington told Tokyo2020 with a laugh when asked about the abandoned department store that has become the team's makeshift home for over a year – and will continue as such right up until the Olympic Games this summer. “We backed each other up like one big family. All we need is a little space, to bring in the right equipment and some enthusiasm. Shopping centre or hotel ballroom, it’s all the same to me!”

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Picture by 2021 Getty Images

There’s a lot of laughter and shaking heads when Team USA’s star pugilists talk about their first impressions of the unusual pandemic-times training facilities. Since last March, they’ve included a ballroom at the Hotel Elegante in Colorado Springs and, later and more permanently, an abandoned Macy’s department store at the nearby Citadel Mall.

No joke at the start

But it was no laughing matter when news first broke that much of the world was locking down, just ten days before the Americas continental Olympic qualifiers in Argentina.

“We were all peaking out [in training],” said Anthony Herrera, a lightning-fast flyweight from East Los Angeles, about that month when everything became possible and nothing was simple anymore. “The training centre [the official state-of-the-art Olympic facility in Colorado Springs] started emptying out. You couldn’t even eat there anymore. We all went home and everything started to close down little by little.”

Back at their home bases – some rural and far-flung and others tucked away in the crowd of urban spaces – improvisation became the watchword for these athletes. Some of the young fighters made weight rooms of their living rooms. Others shadow-boxed in hallways. All of them put in never-ending miles of roadwork.

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Picture by 2019 Getty Images

“But there’s only so much you can do by yourself,” added Carrington, from Brooklyn in New York City – site of a devastating first wave of the pandemic last spring. “You want to punch something! That’s what us boxers do.”

The time came for USA Boxing to make a decision. As executive director, it’s among Mike McAtee’s many jobs to provide Team USA’s boxers with “every opportunity to fulfill their dreams.” At the time, that meant setting up in the ballroom of the Hotel Elegante, with its plush carpeting, striped wallpaper and chandeliers.

It was, by no means, ideal.

Hotel ballroom missteps

“The hotel was tricky,” said Herrera, who, like the rest of his teammates, had to train at home early on in the pandemic due to gyms closing all over the United States. “We didn’t have access to a lot of things but little by little we got used to it. Let’s just say it was different – I can say that.”

Different.

It’s the same word Naomi Graham, a middleweight from Fayetteville, North Carolina, used to describe the ballroom. “I mean, we made the best of it,” she said, with her face telling a bigger story than her words. “We set up the room as best we could and we tried to make it as normal as we could.”

It became clear that the hotel wasn’t going to cut it. In 2020, USA Boxing held four camps after the pandemic hit and three of those were there in the ballroom. But a longer-term solution was needed, according to McAtee.

The Pandemic wasn’t fading and the boxers needed a place to call home, to come together as a team between the solitary work they did at home.

“We couldn’t wait around for decisions to be made for us,” said McAtee, a retired police detective from Lawrence, Kansas whose passion for boxing – amateur boxing in particular – runs bone deep. “We could sit there and whine about it or we could move forward. In boxing, there’s always someone faster, or stronger and you have to adapt and change tactics. Moving forward – that’s how we ended up in the department store. Tokyo is our ultimate goal, so maybe this isn’t perfect, but it’s reasonable. There’s no perfect here – perfect is the enemy of progress.”

Setting a scene at the old store

Team USA Head Coach Billy Walsh – a gregarious Irishman held in high regard around the world of amateur boxing – and high performance director Matt Johnson helped set up the training centre in a sectioned-off part of the Citadel Mall. Everyone chipped in where they could. The Communications Director even went out and bought boxing posters.

There were four rings and heavy bag stands. All of the strength and conditioning equipment was brought in too. “We tried to make it look and feel as much like a real boxing gym as we could,” said McAtee, who fought Golden Gloves as a younger man and whose zest for the sport of boxing fairly oozes through the phone line. “On move-in day, I couldn't believe the job they’d done.”

It’s true. If you squint a little and ignore the signs guiding you to the fitting rooms, and the fact that the boxing gloves are lined up on abandoned shoe racks, you can hardly tell the difference between the Olympic Training Center just up the road and this one – improvised by need and ingenuity and a little bit of determination.

“I had this picture in my mind of a ring in the middle of a showroom and people would be coming by and watching us,” laughed Richard Torrez Jr., from the farm country of Tulare, California – a super heavyweight whose training regime during 2020 involved, oftentimes, breaking rocks with a sledgehammer and flipping massive tractor tires. “And when we got there we could see signs like where the men’s clothing was supposed to be and I made jokes early on about how we’d be ‘sparring on aisle-three!’”

Early hesitancy and chuckles aside, the old Macy’s store did the job for Team USA. It became a home – one born of necessity and by no means normal.

“But once COVID hit we didn’t have a home,” said Johnson. “It [the department store] wasn’t a traditional boxing gym for sure, but everything has been far from traditional [since March 2020] so you had to do what you had to do to keep going.”

Not bad in a pinch

Johnson, who speaks in the nuts-and-bolts vernacular of a trainer, oversaw the transition of an abandoned store, in a half-abandoned shopping centre, into a space worthy of Olympic training. And he did it in the middle of a global pandemic with a sport that requires its athletes to be as up-close-and-personal as it’s possible to be.

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Picture by 2020 Getty Images

“We were blocked off from the actual mall,” added Johnson, who worked his way up from an intern position in 2012 to oversee the precise, scientific fitness regimes of some of the sport’s top amateur athletes. “So there were no window shoppers or anything like that!”

“It’s actually pretty nice,” admitted Herrera, the flyweight from LA. “We had [four] legit rings set up and it was bigger than the normal training centre.”

The size of the old store actually made it so the two teams – the men and women – could train at the same time. This was impossible under normal circumstances. As silver linings go, this might be grasping at straws. But most competitive boxers have the kind of minds that are hard-wired to make the best of exceedingly difficult circumstances.

“With all of us being there in the gym together we were able to support and motivate each other,” said Torrez, on the smaller side of the super heavyweight division but a hard puncher with suave footwork who loves nothing more than taking down the giants who populate this extreme end of the weight divisions.

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Picture by 2019 Getty Images

What he’s describing is the kind of ad-hoc family Carrington spoke of – and one that tends to pop up in boxing gyms, wherever they’re found, all over the world.

“Boxing breaks down a lot of barriers,” said McAtee – with 40 years of the sport coursing through his veins. “Everybody feels pain and everybody bleeds red.”

California camp, then Argentina and on to Tokyo

With a year of complications and making-the-best-of-it under their belts, Team USA will embark on a multi-nation camp at the Olympic training facility in Chula Vista, California between 28 March and 4 May.

This is a place made specifically for boxing and for making the best boxers. It will be a far cry from the shopping centre with the Rocky Mountains visible on the far horizon.

From California, it’s on to the continental Olympic qualifiers in Argentina from 10-16 May. For these fighters, this is the decisive moment and it comes a year later than planned. But might they be that extra bit wiser – hungrier even – for the waiting?

Time will tell.

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Picture by 2021 Getty Images

“A lot of things get thrown at you in life, but that’s the golden story to get through and become an Olympian,” said Carrington with a shrug. His teammate Graham’s feelings are right there with his – and she’s indomitable in her expression. “It’s the same goal as a year ago it’s just a different date. Seeing myself on top of that podium is motivation enough – it kept my drive going.”

Once Team USA is finalised after Argentina, it’s “back to the abandoned department store” according to McAtee. And it’s a fitting place from which to send off the country’s toughest athletes to take on the rest of the world’s best in Tokyo.

Torrez, the biggest of the bunch, puts the finest point on what they’ve all been through and what they’ve all learned in the bargain.

“It’s boxing,” he said. “You adapt and conquer.”

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