Boxing Team’s Last Round Before Beijing
Last Friday, 11 days before the US Olympic boxing team leaves for China, it held its last open training session at the world-famous Gleason's gym in New York City. While the regular clients did their own workouts and Hilary Swank's trainer for "Million Dollar Baby" prepped a local fighter in a distant ring, Team USA performed in another corner of the shop-worn gym.
The session began when heavyweight Deontay Wilder led his seven Beijing-bound teammates in a series of stretches.
Afterward, middleweight Shawn Estrada wrapped his hands and gave his name to a reporter with a melodious Spanish accent and a wink.
Javier Molina - the 18-year-old honor student - paused on the heavy bag and was quick with a smile.
Sadam Ali, the team's only New Yorker, was happy to be home. Did it feel good to be back? "Ohhhh yeah," said the lightweight.
Near the ropes, the team's only two-time Olympian and a 2007 world champion, Rau'shee Warren, put on his gloves, tapped fellow world champ Demetrius Andrade and featherweight Raynell Williams, and the trio went off to pummel a small potato-shaped heavy bag all at once.
Meanwhile, up in the ring, bantamweight Gary Russell, Jr., was giving a concert in a loud golden windbreaker as he busily worked the mitts with coach Robert "Herb" Martin. The crisp syncopated rhythm of his hands hitting the sweet spot of the pads in a series of crazily unpredictable combinations was fine art. A small private audience gathered behind the ropes - riveted - until someone called, "Time!" As Russell turned away from Martin, it became apparent that the maestro had been casually chewing gum the whole time.
Only one athlete was missing on this bright, warm, summer day in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Light flyweight Luis Yanez was in Dallas at the moment, on a conference call with the USA Boxing judiciary committee in Colorado Springs. Head coach Dan Campbell and USA Boxing CEO Jim Millman were also absent, dialing in from New York to the hearing that would determine whether Yanez would be reinstated to the Olympic team after going AWOL for three weeks.
Yanez's time to appeal was running out, but for everybody else, time could not go quickly enough.
The back of coach Martin's shirt reminded everyone how closely the Games loomed: "How long? Not long!" it read.
On August 9, when the boxing tournament begins in Beijing, it will be the ultimate transition: it will mark the end of 10 months of isolation in Colorado, fighting for a berth on the team, fighting for a US berth in each weight class, fighting to make weight, fighting to learn the international style - and if all goes well, signal the beginning of a great professional career for some of the United States' finest boxers.
With the Olympics so close yet 6,680 miles away, the anticipation was palpable as the team fielded its final questions.
Warren, who will be the first American boxer since 1976 to compete in multiple Olympics, said his four years of preparation felt different this time. "I'm more mature," he said. "I've learned the judging and the styles. I've spent the past four years listening and finding ways to use my speed against them."
Another difference is that Warren will enter the 2008 Games as a world champion, but he said the title didn't add extra pressure. Rather, he said, "It just shows that I'm at the top of my game, that I'm someone to beat, that I'm the favorite, but they're not going to give me the gold because I'm the world champion. I've been thinking about it so much. I want to fight for [the Olympic gold] right now. I want to go in the ring today."
Warren's preparation was also affected by the team's new residency program. He said the isolation helped his concentration but also required incomparable sacrifice. "I just had a son in December of 2007. That's been the hardest part. I've been away from my family before, but it's a different story with my son. He's so small. Living in Colorado [while the baby is in Cincinnati] made me even hungrier. I've really sacrificed myself this time."
If Warren does become the first American flyweight since 1984 to capture Olympic gold, he already knows where the medal will go. "I want to put it around my mother's neck," he said. "She's not just a mom, she's a sister, a grandma, an aunt - whatever you can be to a person. Whenever I need her, she's always been there. When I get that medal, I want to give it to her for all her hard work."
Coach Martin predicts Warren will achieve his goal. "He's the fastest I've ever seen," Martin said. "He's got hand speed, foot speed, and a good eye. He always knows where he is in the ring. He doesn't get hit a lot. I believe he will have that gold medal."
The other clear US medal favorite is 152-lb Andrade, a 2007 world champion who Martin says, "has a way of turning up the heat when he needs to. He can put pressure on you and get the win. Everything he throws is pretty much on-point. He's very sharp. He also has a good eye."
Like Warren, Andrade knows a world title doesn't guarantee Olympic success, however. "I gotta work even harder because I'm No. 1," he said. "Everyone's going for me and I don't know what they've been doing out there [to prepare]."
Andrade felt that living with the team in Colorado for 10 months helped him bond with his teammates and taught them how to push each other. It also brought him closer to his friend Warren. "Me and Rau'shee hang around a lot. We grew up through the [Junior Olympics] together," Andrade said.
At the world championships last October in Chicago, Andrade watched as Warren became the first American to win an amateur world boxing title since 1999 and looked to Warren for advice. "He said, ‘It's going to be crazy,'" Andrade said. Surely, the same will hold true for Beijing. Whether or not Andrade captures a medal there, one thing is certain.
When he returns, he promised to throw a big birthday party for his young daughter, Autumn, at home in Rhode Island. She will be celebrating her third birthday while Andrade is competing in Beijing. Asked her birthdate, however, the proud papa drew a blank.
"I don't know," he confessed. "I know it's in August. August 19, I think. I'm pretty sure. That just tells you how long I've been away."
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.