Fighting Off Distractions, Russell Stays Focused on Golden Opportunity

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 2, 2008

NEW YORK -- On a recent day, with no one around, Gary Russell Jr. slipped into a museum to gaze at a display of Olympic medals. There, glistening in the artificial light, rested the object of his obsession: a gold medal. He imagined the weight he would feel if he cradled it in his hands and then draped it over his neck.

Russell recounted this story on a warm Friday evening last month as he rode the No. 7 train from Shea Stadium to Times Square, where the U.S. Olympic boxing team was staying on a promotional tour. The 20-year-old bantamweight from Capitol Heights was effusive in his desire for an Olympic medal, almost bouncing on his seat in the subway car, and yet it was also obvious that he was the only Olympic boxer on the train.

The U.S. team had been bused to Shea Stadium to throw out the first pitch before a New York Mets game. But Russell doesn't like baseball and had little interest in cavorting with teammates he has been forced to live with for the past year in Colorado Springs. So in the top of the second inning, he simply walked out of the ballpark.

In fact, the entire trip seemed a waste of time to him, another distraction from his single-minded pursuit. He has barely warmed to living in Colorado as part of the U.S. team's mandatory training and didn't see a point to appearances on NBC's "Today" show and ceremonial workouts at the legendary Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn. He spent much of the pregame at Shea listening to his headphones -- "just in my own little world" he said.

"I'm just ready to fight, man," he said. "I'm ready to beat somebody."

It is hard to assess where Russell is now that the Olympics have finally arrived. Since he dramatically won a spot on the U.S. team last summer -- he lost his first fight of the trials, then had to win six straight bouts in the losers' bracket -- he has fought only a handful of times.

Last October, he won three fights at the world championships in Chicago to officially qualify for the Olympics, then fought sluggishly, almost trying to lose as he dropped the fourth. Then in the spring, he faced Brazil Olympian Robson Conceicao, who had moved up a weight class to fight Russell, in a televised exhibition in Bridgeport, Conn. Russell pummeled him, 27-8. Other than that, he has only sparred. It is, by far, the longest time he has gone without a real fight.

He does not feel challenged in those sparring sessions for the Olympians in Colorado, pining for his brother Allan, who just missed out on the Olympic trials last summer but is a vicious puncher who can knock Gary back when they fight for their father and coach, Gary Russell Sr., back home.

The only taste of home he has is Robert Martin, a boxing trainer who works with the Russell family in Washington. Martin was able to land a position on the U.S. team as its punching coach and can continue working with Russell on the techniques they perfected at home. But it is not a perfect system, and Russell still finds himself working alone, finding this better than buying into USA Boxing techniques he does not respect.

"He's going to do what he has to do," Martin said. "He has the ability to get an Olympic medal. I can help, but his dad is his main coach and one of the best coaches in the country, I think. He always listens to his dad."

Because Russell is something of a loner with the team, and because his father has long bickered with the team's coach, Dan Campbell, he is hard for the USA Boxing people to understand. Many of them push two of his other teammates -- flyweight Rau'Shee Warren and welterweight Demetirus Andrade -- as the legitimate U.S. gold medal threats. They talk warily about the tendon tear Russell has in his shoulder and worry that it might be a problem even though his father says it is an old injury and has been assured by doctors that his son can fight without further damaging it.

Warren, on the other hand, missed time this year after knee surgery, and Andrade, who broke his jaw, has started training only within the past month.

If anything, it is Russell's perpetually sore hands, a result of his being the second-hardest puncher on the team, that could present a problem. He brushes away talk about his hand problems, just as he does the shoulder injury and that he has barely fought in the past year.

He is comforted by the fact that his father will be in Beijing with him. Gary Sr., who is probably the only person Russell trusts completely with his boxing, had feared he would not be able to make the trip, especially given the price for him and his wife, Lawan, to go. The cost soared well over $20,000. To raise money, Gary Sr. was baking cakes every night that Lawan would take to work at the Small Business Administration and sell to her coworkers.

But after the family's plight became public, offers to help poured in. Lawan Russell estimates that about 50 people donated money to send her and her husband to China.

What this means is that Gary Sr. will be able to see his son fight. He can watch Russell's upcoming opponents, assess what they do and give a full scouting report. He will also be able to talk to his son during the Olympics, testing a psyche he has pushed and prodded for more than a decade of boxing.

Already he is worried that his son will be uptight, which was the very thing that cost him his first fight in last summer's Olympic trials.

"This is the big dance," Gary Sr. said. "The whole time, I'm trying to stress to him that this is another dance. I think the greatest lesson was learned [at the trials], that he should not try and fight the competitive scoring system."

Worried about losing points, which are earned for punches landed, Russell was tentative in his early fights at the trials. Gary Sr. believes his son fights best when he is simply trying to knock the other fighter out. It's a mentality he has been trying to re-install in him for the past year.

"At this stage you can't be thinking" of not losing points, Gary Sr. said. "You've got to go out there and do you."

His worry is that while Russell might talk a good game, the fact is he has wanted a gold medal for so long that he might revert to the hesitant fighter who nearly was knocked from the trials.

"When he gets to a point where he throws five or six punches in a row, then he's jelling," Gary Sr. said. "I think for the first time I got him conservative but with a certain awareness about him. He said, 'I'm going to stand in the ring and this joker is going to throw one punch and I'm throwing four.' "

Which is exactly the words the father wants to hear on the doorstep of their dream.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company