USA Olympic boxers battle adversity
NEW YORK — Luis Yanez’s teammates feinted and weaved in concert at Gleason’s Gym on Friday, filling the Brooklyn boxing landmark with their uniform punches and grunts in the U.S. Olympic team’s final public workout before Beijing.
Yanez, the team’s light flyweight until last week, wasn’t there. Neither was Dan Campbell, the coach who spent the past year molding his nine boxers to restore the U.S. reputation in an Olympic sport that hasn’t been dominated by Americans for a generation.
While the other eight Olympians shadowboxed and worked the well-beaten bags at Gleason’s, Yanez and Campbell were 1,500 miles apart on a conference call. Yanez is appealing Campbell’s decision to kick the 106-pound fighter off the team for skipping more than three weeks of training in Colorado Springs last month.
USA Boxing’s judicial committee will rule Monday on Yanez, who still could take his case to an arbitrator. If Yanez stays home, the U.S. team in Beijing will be the nation’s smallest contingent since the 1948 games in London.
“I think the whole situation is terrible, and they should let him back on the team,” middleweight Shawn Estrada said. “Even one more guy makes the team a whole lot stronger. There’s no reason to keep him off the team. People can learn from their stupid mistakes.”
Most of the U.S. boxers agree with Estrada, but their reflexive team pride is mixed with disappointment in Yanez’s choices. The nine fighters have spent most of the last year away from their families and local coaches at a residency training program in Colorado Springs, postponing their normal lives in pursuit of medals.
“Whatever he did, that was his problem,” said Rau’shee Warren, a two-time Olympian who fought at Yanez’s weight in Athens before becoming a world champion at 112 pounds. “I’m keeping myself focused on what I’ve got to do. We don’t really notice, because he hasn’t been around for a while. He used to hit the bag with me, but (Yanez’s banishment) was all on him. They asked him to come to camp a couple of times.”
Campbell and USA Boxing CEO Jim Millman say they dropped Yanez after he ignored repeated orders to return from his native Duncanville, Texas, to the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Yanez claims he stayed in contact with the team while caring for his sister and her four children as she went through drug rehabilitation for an addiction to crack cocaine.
“We left feeling pretty positive,” Yanez family spokesman Michael Montoya said after the conference call. “Both sides were able to tell their story. We had some evidence in terms of some phone records (showing) Luis had been in contact when they said he hadn’t. It was established there was communication going on, that USA Boxing was aware of what was going on.”
Millman declined comment on the appeal hearing.
The eight remaining fighters acknowledge they’re better prepared for Beijing because of the residency training program. Campbell revived it from a 24-year dormancy to prepare his fighters for the vagaries of international boxing, which aren’t always understood by their hometown coaches.
Still, the months of monotonous work and equally monotonous life in Colorado Springs aren’t warm memories.
Estrada missed his daughter’s first steps and first words while in camp, and he has been limited to phone calls with his cancer-stricken father. Warren hasn’t been around for much of his 7-month-old son’s life, and lightweight Sadam Ali met his newborn brother for the first time Thursday.
“I’ll probably feel a lot better about the residency program when it’s over,” said Ali, a Brooklyn native.
Other fighters, including light welterweight Javier Molina, missed deadlines to return to Colorado Springs — but only Yanez apparently defied several requests and a final letter demanding his return.
“I believe he’s going to be back on the team, and I think he should,” Ali said. “Maybe he isn’t right, but he’s worked real hard for this. … A lot of us really think that was stupid of him, that he should have come back if this is the biggest thing in his life, but everybody makes mistakes.”
If Yanez is unsuccessful, he plans to appeal to an independent arbitrator by Thursday — but time is running out, with less than two weeks before the Americans head to China.
“I still think we’re going to have nine gold medals, not just eight,” Estrada said. “Nine just sounds better.”