Merrie Sue Holton , Published May 17 2013
Packing a punch: Four women pursuing their boxing passion at Fargo clubFargo -- It seems like chaos at first. Music thumps with a heavy beat. Four women drop down for endless pushups and planks. The bell sounds. Using quick feet, everyone moves to the next rotation.
It’s just another evening “at the office” for Jesse Barbot, who coaches and manages the stations and training for 40 boxers ages 8-47 at the south Fargo Red River Golden Gloves Boxing Gym.
“I’ve loved this sport ever since I saw the ‘Rocky’ movies as a kid,” says Barbot, a Red Lake Falls, Minn., native.
The profile of Red River boxers is diverse. Among them are four women, Brynn Luger, 32, Kira Ollila, 18, Sara Pearcy, 21, and Samantha Gooding, 19.
The hours put in at the gym mean something different to each woman. For Luger, boxing is in her family. For Ollila, it’s a chance to get in the ring as one of the few women fighters in central Minnesota. For Pearcy and Gooding, it’s just a new experience.
Luger’s boxing history
Luger is no stranger to the boxing ring. It came built into her family. Her dad from Bismarck served as the ringside physician for several of Olympic boxer Virgil Hill’s North Dakota fights. She graduated from college in Bottineau, continued on for a master’s degree at the University of North Dakota and now is a working on a doctoral degree at North Dakota State University in counseling.
“It’s quite a duality of roles,” Luger says, “to be a licensed counselor and a boxer. The sport is challenging to me both mentally and physically, with an intense amount of technical skill to learn. I will have my first fight in May.”
Luger, mom to a 5-year-old daughter, explains that some of her family has concerns for her safety, but her dad is very excited, as are her supportive friends. She willingly takes pointers and advice from male boxers and training partners who have more experience.
“It’s not a big difference in training men and women,” Barbot says. “My female boxers usually admit they were tomboys. Women are better technically ‘out of the gate’ with techniques such as learning hooks and turning over punches.”
Ollila, who describes herself as a quiet, shy kid, watched Golden Gloves boxing matches in Wadena, Minn., during her first three years of training. One of only two women boxers in Wadena, Ollila had her debut match three years ago, with a packed crowd in the Wadena Auditorium. Her Wadena coach helped her apply for a USA Boxing scholarship, which helps pay tuition at Minnesota State University Moorhead, where she is a first-year student.
“I like that I get out of boxing exactly what I put into it,” Ollila says. “Boxing made me very determined. I never give up. I don’t listen to negative comments, and most of my friends and family support me. The cardio workout is intense.”
In this region, it is difficult to find fights for women, which Ollila finds discouraging. Barbot says there is one female boxing coach in this region, in Minneapolis, and a handful of female referees.
“Kira is our only female competitor so far, with a record of 6-3,” Barbot says. “She is very strong mentally.”
Pearcy and Gooding relative newcomers
Pearcy, who has a 2-year-old son, came to boxing for physical training for the National Guard. Already trained in Tae Kwan Do, she watched her boyfriend learn to box and thought it might be a good workout for her.
“Now I love it,” she says, “and I hope to compete. The rewards for me are the physical challenges. I try not to be too hard on myself. It’s great to have these other women boxers as mentors. We are there for each other.”
Gooding, an accounting major at NDSU, also came to boxing via a boyfriend. After watching him, she thought, “I can do this.”
“Boxing has given me power and control over my life,” she says. “It’s made me physically and mentally stronger with more self-confidence.”
Barbot tries to schedule one to two matches per month, traveling to Detroit Lakes, Wadena, Grand Forks, Grafton, Minneapolis and Kansas City. Red River, sanction by USA Boxing, allows boxers to qualify for regional and national competitions. The club puts safety first when it comes to head and mouth protection and physical exams.
“In amateur boxing,” Barbot says, “all fights are three rounds unless for some reason they get stopped. The refs are very careful in amateur boxing.”
In 2012, the Olympics introduced women’s boxing as an official sport, and the U.S. had a fantastic showing with Marlen Esparza winning medals. Barbot hopes this will encourage more women to train at the Red River Club.
The club closes in the summer, allowing Barbot and his coaches, who are all USA Boxing certified, to spend time with family.
“I have a very understanding and supportive wife, “says Barbot of his wife, Jenny. They have two children, Oscar, 7, and Summer, 4.
As an amateur boxer, Barbot won the ND USA Boxing and ND Golden Glove state titles twice each.
“I’m much more nervous as a coach than when I was fighting,” he says. “I try to keep a ‘calm corner’ during fights, just like I wanted. I guarantee that boxers who train with us will learn something new every day.”
Merrie Sue Holtan is a regular contributor to SheSays.
She lives near Perham, Minn., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.