In East Oakland park, student boxers fight through pandemic | #students | #parents


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OAKLAND — Sneakers landing between the rungs of agility ladders squeak across the tennis courts at San Antonio Park just after 4:15 p.m. every weekday. This is the drill that Dalia Gomez instructs more than a dozen student boxers ages 5 to 18 to warm up with as she critiques their footwork and takes a headcount.

Katia Escovedo, 15, does shoulder tap push-ups as professional boxer Dalia “La Pantera” Gomez stands next to her during the Vertical Skillz Outreach youth boxing and fitness class at San Antonio Park in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

To those who show up, “Coach G” is a community leader from Oxnard, a pugilism mecca she calls “Boxnard.” She founded the nonprofit Vertical Skillz Outreach in 2004 on a mission to empower youngsters through health and life skills training and travel experiences. Gomez, 38, knew she wanted to work with kids, given the role coaches played in her own upbringing.

“I know that I am one of the answers to our community. … Teachers and coaches and mentors are the angels of the community,” she said on a recent Friday afternoon. “I know I needed it. They need it and so, of course I have to do it — it’s a duty.”

You can find her running the free outdoor boxing camp under a white tent on the park’s hillside courts after she finishes her dayshift teaching physical education at Elmhurst United Middle School in Oakland’s Iveywood neighborhood. Her journey from aspiring baller in Boxnard to trainer involved at least five bouts as a professional fighter, one year as a semi-pro basketball player in Mexico, three boxing tournament wins and a scholarship revoked because of a DUI and reinstated a year later.

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Professional boxer Dalia “La Pantera” Gomez tests a student’s abdominals strength during a Vertical Skillz Outreach youth boxing and fitness class at San Antonio Park in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. “The program gives them the opportunity to take care of their health, wellness, mind, and soul,” Gomez said. “Most important is to give kids a safe place where they feel happy, grow and be a better person.” (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

While teaching young boxers jabbing and her most important rule of always defending yourself, Gomez recalled her own redemption arc.

She started coaching a boys basketball team at 17 at the elementary school her mom worked at before she played for Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. In her first year, Gomez was arrested by campus police for driving under the influence and kicked off the basketball team.

She told Monica Heuer, her coach at the time, there was nothing left for her in California. Standing in Heuer’s living room, Gomez vowed to regain the scholarship, her coach’s trust and a place on the team.

Heuer gave her a list of tasks to complete that included attending DUI training, community service and speaking to students. They shook on it.

“I didn’t expect her to complete it quite honestly,” Heuer said, adding that she never knew what impact her coaching would have on any given student.

“Everything is not always pretty. Coaches have to make tough decisions for the sake of the team … All you can do as a coach is lay that foundation based on your principles of integrity, accountability and mentorship.”

Gomez did more than she was asked, according to Heuer, who added that coaching allowed her to deposit accountability into her student’s character.

The future boxer and coach spent her year off working five jobs and training at a YMCA two to three times a week, she told BoxingInsider. She took up boxing at the Y, admitting she did not respect the sport at the time.

“I was young and the coach said ‘Do you want to fight?’ ” Gomez said. “Sure.”

She fought Quanitta ‘Queen’ Underwood in her first match at 21.

“My legs felt like Jell-O. I couldn’t defend myself, and she just went 1-2-1-2.”

Aton Alva, 6, wraps his hands as he learna boxing skills during the Vertical Skillz Outreach youth boxing and fitness class at San Antonio Park in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, March 5, 2021. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

In time, she won back the scholarship and earned her degree. Gomez stopped fighting after she left Washington and traveled the country for several years before landing a coaching job at Santa Rosa’s A&B boxing gym and starting a youth program.

She moved to the Town with $50 in her pocket, bringing her renewed boxing interest and fusing it with her passion for mentoring in the East Oakland Boxing Association for underserved youth. Gomez fought for five years, becoming California Golden Glove Champion, Puerto Rico vs. California Champion, and Beautiful Brawlers Champion.

Professional boxer Dalia “La Pantera” Gomez poses for a photo after kids participated in the Vertical Skillz Outreach youth boxing and fitness class located on a tennis court at San Antonio Park in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, March 5, 2021. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

She launched her boxing program in its current form under a white tent at San Antonio Park in East Oakland in 2018 and continued to compete until June 2019, according to Boxrec.

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Five months later, Coach G welcomed Iyanna Jackson, a seventh-grader at Aurum Preparatory Academy who said she was getting into trouble and wanted to feel better about herself.

“The first week is going to be stressful. Your whole body is going to be sore, but once you actually get into it, you’ll get used to it,” Iyanna said, offering words of encouragement to future newcomers. “If you come to the class mad, once you get on the [punching] bag, you’ll be perfectly fine.”

Beads in Iyanna’s braids slapped against her shoulders as she jumped through the rungs of the agility ladder nearly two years into training. As students lined up to drill, Chris Tello, a freshman at Arise High School in Fruitvale, charged right behind Jackson.

Like Coach G, he loved basketball first. Chris went to San Antonio Park to shoot hoops when he noticed Coach G’s boxing class. Gomez told him about her scholarship and college basketball career. He was hooked. Now, Chris aspires to be a world champion.

Chris Tello, 14, center, who said he wants to be a world champion boxer, and other kids punch boxing bags as they learn boxing skills during the Vertical Skillz Outreach youth boxing and fitness class at San Antonio Park in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, March 5, 2021. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

“As soon as I started jump roping, I wanted to stop, I wanted to quit. But I was like, ‘If you want to become something, it’s more than this, more ahead — more challenges,’ ” Chris said.

He said Gomez’s program molded his mentality more than his physique. Kids would razz Chris for wearing glasses.

“They used to call me four eyes, Harry Potter … push me, shove me. Now I actually know how to defend myself … now I actually want to become world champion, and yeah, I am going to become world champion.”

Chris Tello, 14, who said he wants to be a world champion boxer, makes boxing moves during an interview after participating in the Vertical Skillz Outreach youth boxing and fitness class located on a tennis court at San Antonio Park in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, March 5, 2021. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

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In May, Gomez will use a grant awarded by the city of Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention to host an all ages, Wellness Gathering in San Antonio Park. The second annual Vertical Skillz Outreach event features free food and self-defense training for youth as well as restorative justice, history and music circles and sanitizing stations. You can donate to the non-profit here.

Check back for more updates.





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