A young woman in a summer dress and gold sandals stood at the edge of the boxing ring in Alexandria, intently watching Anacostia High graduate Antoine Douglas spar. In the midst of preparations for the 2012 U.S. Olympic boxing trials, Douglas landed hard and suddenly on the ropes in front of her.
She didn’t flinch, even though his sparring partner inadvertently stepped on the leather purse she had placed at the edge of the mat.
When the workout concluded, the woman, wearing a cluster of copper bracelets on one wrist, a thick gold band on another, and chunky earrings, approached Douglas, 18. He grinned. She offered a critique.
“You have to keep your hands up,” Tyrieshia Douglas, 22, told her brother.
She, too, is a boxer with Olympic hopes.
In the last weekend of June, the pair became the only brother and sister to qualify for the 2012 Olympic trials in boxing, which for men begin July 31 in Mobile, Ala., and for women take place next February. They have fought together for years, in boxing rings and outside of them, the sport providing a kind of sanctuary after years of bouncing around the District’s foster care system.
As they have risen in national prominence, they’ve come to realize that the discipline that satisfied their yearning for belonging and hope might also offer a ticket to the 2012 Summer Games in London.
“You always have to look back,” said Tyrieshia, who works at a day-care center in the District but lives and trains in Baltimore. “We got this far. . . . Us becoming Olympians, coming from what we came from, think of how many lives we could change.”
Both recall their not-so-distant youth in hazy outlines and with occasionally wet eyes. A police car with flashing lights came on a snowy day well more than a decade ago. Officers removed the pair along with two other siblings from the home of their birth mother. An older brother, Devon Douglas, now 27; a middle brother, Ronte Douglas, now 21; and Tyrieshia and Antoine landed at the house of an aunt.
They moved in and out of foster homes, passed around by friends and distant relatives, for several years, eventually winding up in a group home. That’s when Petrick Washington, a second cousin, stepped in. An escalator repairman who was then married, Washington heard the children would be split up. He told authorities he wanted to adopt the three youngest, he said. The eldest, Devon, had moved in with a basketball coach.
“They wanted me to take one,” Washington said. “I said no. They said, “What about two?’ ” I said, ‘You have to give ’em all to me.’ ”
When the adoption was complete, the trio learned their journey through a tangle of foster homes had reached an end. Tyrieshia, then 14, was in the ninth grade; Antoine was about 11. Washington would be their father, friend and, eventually, boxing coach. He vowed he would teach them discipline, something he learned years before in a boxing ring. Washington, who hadn’t boxed since his childhood, returned to the sport for the sake of his new kids.
“I couldn’t even do a sit-up when I first started,” Antoine said. “It was just me and my brother. Petrick told us to get in the car and we had no idea where we were going.”
Antoine bloodied another kid in one of his first sparring sessions. Observers called him “Action.” He immediately liked the nickname and grew to appreciate the sport.
“It disciplined me,” he said. “It humbled me. Boxing teaches lessons. It’s a respectful sport. It has a personality of its own. Some things it teaches you can’t even explain.”
Washington was dead wrong about one thing: He figured Tyrieshia would be a cheerleader. Boisterous and tough, she wanted nothing to do with traditionally girl activities. One day, she showed up at the Headbanger’s Boxing Team gym in the District, where her brothers had been training. The only girl there, she put on some gloves.
“It felt natural,” she said. “I didn’t know I was supposed to move, but I knew how to fight.”
Fighting had previously been a problem, not a solution. She had been expelled from school and sent to juvenile detention for a while, she said, for breaking the jaw and nose of a couple of teen girls; the judge handling the case told her she needed to find a physical outlet for her anger.
She had feared she would end up in jail like her brother Ronte, who was convicted on felony robbery charges in circuit court in Maryland last December, or friends who turned to drugs or prostitution. The absence of her mother, she believed, brought pain that made her lash out.
“My main frustration was we were always hearing stories that Mom didn’t want to have nothing to do with us,” Tyrieshia said. “It would hurt me a lot. I had to explain [to my brothers] why Mommy wasn’t around. I had to make stuff up. I wanted my mother there . . . I always wanted her around.”
Antoine piled up good grades but refused his sister’s requests to discuss their mother and fathers — each had a different dad, they said. Instead, Antoine drew pictures of pretty women— “pretend moms,” he called them — and imagined they were his own.
Tyrieshia, who spent her senior year at the now-defunct City Lights Public Charter School for at-risk youth, said her heart ached so much she once ran away, searching for a mother she remembered mostly for battles with addiction. She did find her, she said, and remains in touch — but the discovery did not bring the peace of mind she sought.
“When you’re older, you realize there are unanswered questions,” Tyrieshia said. “When you get the answers, they’re not the answers you want.”
Boxing provided the embrace the siblings couldn’t seem to find elsewhere. Washington recalled being blown away when he watched Tyrieshia during her earliest days in the ring.
“She was like a bat out of hell,” Washington said. “You could tell by her first six or seven fights. They were all TKOs [technical knockouts]. She just took boxing by storm in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia.”
The region has a rich reputation in the sport, even in the small but growing women’s amateur and professional ranks. In 2009, women’s boxing was added to the Olympic program, and in what proved to be a huge boon for Tyrieshia, her weight class — 112 pounds or flyweight — was among the three in which women could compete. Baltimore’s Franchon Crews, the current U.S. middleweight champion, will battle for an Olympic spot in the women’s middleweight class (165 pounds).
A youthful face earned Tyrieshia the nickname “Baby Girl,” but she amassed grown-up accomplishments. One of her first knockout victims was a 34-year-old woman, she said. By 2009, she had won one of amateur boxing’s three major titles, the National PAL Championship, in her weight class.
A year later, she finished second in the 2010 USA Boxing National Championships. In April, she traveled to Warsaw for an international tournament with a handful of other USA Boxing amateurs and in late June repeated her silver medal finish at the 2011 USA Boxing championships.
“Boxing changed my life,” said Tyrieshia, now coached by Calvin Ford. “It totally changed my life around. I didn’t think I’d make it past 18, to be honest. It’s a beautiful thing. Boxing’s opened up so many doors for me.”
Antoine was the 2009 Junior Olympic national champion, but his rise was slowed by an elbow injury that kept him out of competition — and got him into cross-country running — for much of 2009-10. When he returned, he won a silver medal in the 2010 National PAL Championships in the 165-pound class, then claimed the bronze medal at the USA Boxing National Championships in late June. He also nabbed a reward for his excellent grades; while at Anacostia High, he was invited to participate in the White House’s D.C. Scholars Program.
“They were always together, big sister, little brother,” said Kay Koroma, a coach at the Charles Houston Recreation Center in Alexandria who resides with Antoine in Burke. “Everything they did, they did together.”
There’s one challenge left to tackle as a team.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.