I'll be 31 next week, and I've been boxing almost three and a half years now. It really is the biggest athletic challenge that I've ever had in my life, and also the one with the most severe consequences. If you don't do well, if you lose, you know, the consequences are painful. I broke my nose in my first national competition and I got my second one a couple months ago. You can feel the bumps. If you look closely, you can see it's a little over to the side. The guys tell me to save 10 percent for when my boxing career is done to fix my nose, because it will be broken more, they say.
What started out as a way to get out of the house, away from the kids, and as a healthy outlet for my energy--and maybe a way to lose a few pounds--has turned into an obsession of workouts with a huge goal in mind. I am competing in the next two national tournaments [August 8-11 in Georgia and September 16-23 in North Carolina] to try to make the world team. And that is a reasonable goal. I am the national champion in the 132-pound weight class.
I'm a single mom. Dante, my baby, is five, and Davin, my little man, is ten. I don't get child support. Never have. I've worked 55 hours a week for the past ten years doing day care and scheduling clothing pickups for Amvets, and there have been times when I needed extra money where I did extra jobs, like Avon.
Right now, there have been some changes. A company called Division One does my strength training, and they offered me a job in January as a trainer. So I am working for them part-time, training Du Page County athletes, and I still work for Amvets part-time. And I have help from sponsors, family, and friends. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to afford the time or expense of training or traveling to tournaments.
I grew up in Warrenville, a far west suburb. I was always a small girl--I looked like someone that couldn't stand her ground--but people came to realize from the first time someone picked on me, I was tough. I always stood up for myself and my friends.
I used to compete in karate in high school. I am very competitive. Even when I'm working out in the gym, I'm competing against the man on the treadmill next to me: I'm going to run faster than you and farther than you.
Before I started boxing, I was playing softball five times a week. You played for an hour and then everyone went out to the bar. I was tired of hanging out at the bar, and I was bored playing softball, and I needed something new in my life, and, honestly, I needed a new challenge.
My mom kept asking me to go to Gold's Gym in Aurora as her guest. I do not lift weights, and I would always protest. But one day she talked me into it, and she told me on the way there, "Oh, by the way, they have boxing classes there." I boxed for my first three months once a week, just trying to see how I did. I was told I had good skill, but I had some bad karate habits to overcome.
After a few months I increased my workouts to three times a week. I looked forward to them. It was my time out of the house. I was just Amber there. I didn't have to worry about being a nurturing mother, and I didn't have to worry about being the reliable daughter to run over and help my mom with something, and I didn't have to be the ear for a good friend. I could just go and be by myself, and I didn't have to answer to anybody.
Now I train six days a week at Windy City Gym. I spar, work on the speed bag, hit the heavy bag, jump rope, and work with my coach on pads drills. I also have strength training two times a week at Gold's Gym, and I run two and a half miles every other day.
When people find out that I'm a boxer, you can see a change in their attitude. Most often, women find it empowering. Men tend to have a negative response. My boxing career has definitely eliminated a few dating options. The men that aren't immediately turned off by the fact that I am a boxer sometimes, later, take issue with the amount of time I spend training.
My coach, Sam Colonna, is such a positive force for me, and so many men in this gym try to help me be the best that I can be. Some of them will openly tell me they don't support female boxing, they don't think that women should be in here getting punched, but they help me anyway. They let me work my technique on them. USA Boxing doesn't allow men to all-out spar with women, but if they don't throw something it doesn't do me any good, so they will try to keep me on my toes with very light jabs, what I call touch points.
When you actually fight you are afraid, but that is a large part of the appeal of boxing--confronting your fears. It takes so much courage, just to get up in the ring and confront those fears and keep your thoughts in control so that you can think and move and score while that adrenaline is pumping and while you are afraid.
The first time my kids ever saw me boxing, either sparring or in competition, was last year at the national tournament in Texas. The first day I could see the fear in their eyes, so I made a point of going out of the ring, down the steps, and directly to them when I was done. And I smiled, so they could see that I was OK. And they were very relieved. By the end of the week, some media people there were teasing me that during my finals match one of my kids was sleeping and the other was playing his Game Boy. Once they realized I wasn't in any danger, they didn't even bother to watch--and it was my biggest victory.
Dante has come to the gym with me every day this year. He gets out of kindergarten at 11 o'clock. I have the brown-bag lunch in the car and we hop in the car and drive downtown. It takes us about an hour. Now it's summertime, so Davin comes too.
I keep my kids under strict control here. This is not a day care. Once in a while they'll get up and start chasing each other, and I'll have to say, "Hey, we're almost done. Sit down over there." I'll bribe them sometimes. I'll tell them if they're being bad that if they sit still, I'll buy them Slurpees at 7-Eleven on the way home.
The front-desk manager sometimes says to me on the way out, "You look like you don't want to leave." He's right. I never want to leave. I'm happiest when I'm here.
I've made the decision to turn pro after the women's world championships this November. I have been offered contracts. I'm really really hoping that I can get one guaranteeing me one fight a month--it would be hard to support my family otherwise--but I might have to settle for less frequent than that. Female boxing is getting much bigger, but there aren't that many female boxers out there. That's also why I'm holding out for the world competition, because hopefully I'll get paid more as a professional if I win.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Steve Matteo.