Boxing Residency Goes the Distance
On June 30, USA Boxing announced that light flyweight Luis Yanez was removed from the US Olympic team for a conduct violation, which has been widely reported as Yanez's failure to report to camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. On Thursday, Yanez will have a hearing before the USA Boxing's judicial committee. The facts will emerge at the hearing.
Meanwhile, it has been no secret that the boxing team's residency program - like any significant change - faced resistance by some of the fighters.
In general, amateur boxers grow fiercely close to their trainers. And trainers are fiercely protective of their boxers. It is a crucial bond in a sport where an athlete risks irreparable damage, even in practice.
Trainer-athlete loyalty is often a vital component to success because boxing trainers rarely agree on anything, whether it's how to wrap a fighter's hands or whether showboating is acceptable. With so many contrasting philosophies in the boxing world, it helps if a fighter listens to a singular voice - one he trusts.
So what happens when 11 of America's best amateur boxers are uprooted from the people who nurtured their athletic success - as well their families, schools, and jobs - and transplanted to the national training center in Colorado for 10 months to prepare for the Olympics, the biggest moment of their amateur careers?
"It didn't endear me to personal coaches," said Dan Campbell, USA Boxing's National Director of Coaching since 2005. "When I mandated the residency program, people were upset."
Dennis Rodarte, who coached the 19-year-old Yanez for 12 years and guided him to victory at the Olympic Trials, said, "My first reaction was, ‘Why?' Then I thought, ‘Well, maybe they've got some expertise. They're gonna show him something that can help him.'"
On September 17 - three weeks after the athletes earned their spots on the 2008 Olympic team by winning their weight divisions at the US Trials - the fighters settled in Colorado Springs to develop their international style and seize the benefits of daily access to sports scientists, nutritionists, psychologists, and medical staff.
At the first meeting, however, they all said, "Why do we have to be here?" despite the array of advantages.
"I had a plan," Campbell said, and explained that "the intention of the residency program is so that guys could focus [without distractions] and concentrate on an international style of boxing."
Campbell had worked with the US Junior Olympic program for more than 10 years and had observed other countries' junior programs. As an alternate coach for the 2004 Olympic boxing team, he also witnessed how the US team prepared for the Athens Games where it earned two medals.
"I thought the training regimen was set up wrong," Campbell said. For one thing, he said, "Guys were getting injured in the last three weeks [before Athens] because they'd go home and come back."
Under the mandatory residency program, the 2008 team only received two extended breaks during their 10 month stay - one at Christmas, and one in mid-May.
When the boxers went home, they were prevented from competing locally. "I confiscated all their USA Boxing [licenses] so they can't compete domestically," Campbell said. "If you're at home and you have a kid who just made the Olympic team, you're going to box him and show him off: That's my son the Olympian."
Basketball was also outlawed. Still, two athletes came back after Christmas with torn meniscuses from playing the forbidden game.
"Now they understand why they're in Colorado and why they're not allowed to play basketball," Campbell said.
Even after the athletes made the US Olympic team, they still had to qualify for a berth at the Olympics itself. The first of three international qualifiers was the 2007 AIBA World Championships in Chicago, just one month into the US residency program.
"I know we couldn't build strength in less than a month, so what we took to the world championships was speed with a lot of movement," Campbell said.
Five US boxers qualified in Chicago that October, including two who won world titles: flyweight Rau'shee Warren (the team's only Olympic veteran) and welterweight Demetrius Andrade.
After Worlds, Campbell knew the other countries would be studying tapes of the bouts and trying to adapt ways to beat the Americans, so when the US squad returned to Colorado Springs, it immediately started to work on strength.
"Most other countries emphasize strength; they have kids hitting tires with sledgehammers at 10-, 11-, 12-years-old," Campbell said. "And at the seniors, the difference is even more apparent because Europeans stay in the game longer. So you might see a 17-year-old kid [from the US] fighting against a grown man. You don't want to bang it out with someone stronger than you but if you get cornered, you need the strength to get out."
At the second Olympic qualifier, in March in Trinidad, three more US athletes earned a ticket to Beijing.
In April, in Guatemala, one more US athlete made the Olympic cut, bringing the number of Beijing-qualified boxers to nine - the same number that represented the US at the 2004 Athens Games.
Despite the parity and the advantages of living at the Olympic Training Center, many trainers have continued to criticize the residency program.
"I still think it's a horrible idea," said Roberto Luna, who trained Olympic light welterweight contender Javier Molina, 18, since Molina was 8. "When kids feel comfortable in a certain environment, it's detrimental to take them out a year before their biggest moment in their amateur career. And this is an individual sport. One philosophy might be right for one kid but not another.
"I may not be the greatest coach in the world, but I'm great for Javier," Luna said.
"Changing coaches is a sacrifice we had to make for the Olympics," said Molina, the light welterweight. "I still talk to Roberto everyday. We just work on the mental part now because we can't do the physical part."
Similarly, before Yanez was removed from the team, he had been calling Rodarte at his Commerce, Calif. gym three times a day. "My coach is one of a kind. He'll be my coach for life."
In the end, one year may be too quick to judge the merits of boxing's residency program. A strong performance in Beijing may quiet the skeptics. But win or lose, one point is clear, the journey always requires sacrifice.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.