By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 7, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 6 -- For six years he was a boatswain on the decks of Navy ships from Cyprus to Vietnam, twice even locked for the winter in the Antarctic ice. A lot has come to steel the soul of U.S. Olympic boxing coach Dan Campbell. And so the most controversial man in American amateur boxing leaned back in a chair at a McDonald's next to Beijing Normal University earlier this week and scowled.
"It doesn't faze me," he said. "Everybody's going to criticize everything."
On Saturday, the most promising boxing team the United States has sent to the Olympics in 12 years will begin fighting at Beijing Workers' Gymnasium. Four fighters could win medals if the draw comes out right -- three have a legitimate chance at gold. Their results will say everything about Campbell's leadership and whether his idea to make the entire team live and train for the past year in Colorado Springs was really a wise idea.
Because some of his fighters don't agree.
As far as Olympic experiments go, this was one of the more ambitious: to tell a group of boxers who had spent much of their lives working with their personal coaches to move to the Colorado mountains and learn techniques that conflict with those they have been taught for years.
"I would rather be home with the coach who got me here," middleweight Shawn Estrada said.
It is a feeling shared by most of the boxers who have struggled to find their place in Colorado Springs, training with new coaches and living in dormitories. All have come to accept the program but most have done so grudgingly and with lots of protest. Gary Russell Sr., the father and coach of Capitol Heights bantamweight Gary Russell Jr., has complained for months that his son is not near the shape he was in when he trained in Maryland and blames Campbell for what he calls lax conditioning methods. This sentiment was echoed by the coach of Dallas area light flyweight Luis Yanez when Yanez was kicked off the team in July after leaving Colorado Springs for three weeks to take care of a sister who was battling a drug problem.
After his dismissal, Yanez said that Campbell was not well liked by the fighters and the coach responded by calling Yanez "one of the biggest liars I've ever met." Yanez was eventually allowed back on the team only a week before it left for Beijing after he agreed to forfeit his Olympic stipend.
Yet the incident exposed dissension in the program during the past year.
Last fall, Campbell blasted Russell Jr. for training on his own at times and threatened to throw him off the team. Other conflicts have arisen at times with several other fighters, including lightweight Sadam Ali, who also questioned the Colorado Springs program in a radio interview over the summer.
Russell Sr., who has bickered with Campbell since Campbell used to bring youth teams from his home in the Virginia Beach area to fight in the Washington area, has portrayed the coach as controlling, unwilling to listen to others and vindictive when fighters choose to listen to their coaches rather than him. He said that is why Campbell threatened to throw his son off the team and why he has battled with other fighters -- many of whom train with coaches who are friends of the elder Russell.
Campbell, 65, shook his head when asked about that. He pointed to his four years of international work as a coach on the U.S. world championships, Pan American Games and junior world championships teams. He said he has studied the international game. He has found methods that work, he said. He added that the coaches who are criticizing him do not have this international experience.
"That's the nature of the beast," he said. "That's the nature of this sport we're in. We all want to do things our own way."
Then he laughed.
"They [griped] from Day One but we expected it," he said of the reaction to the Colorado Springs program, which was launched after last August's Olympic trials in Houston.
Everyone realized that the U.S. program needed to change. Once a giant in the event, storming through the 1976, 1984 and 1988 Olympics with 15 total gold medals, the U.S. team fell apart in the 1990s, a result of the chaos of the sport in general. In the four Olympics since 1988, the Americans have won three golds and 15 medals overall.
Last summer, USA Boxing named Jim Millman, the head of a Connecticut sports marketing company, as its chief executive, in hopes that Millman could fix the fractured organization and restore some of the lost luster. Campbell was named the national coach and the year-long training program in Colorado Springs was initiated.
"We can't lose sight of the fact that this is an individual sport," Millman said, not long before the team left for China.
But he also believes the team was in desperate need of organization and while some of the fighters' personal coaches might be very good, not all are. The idea of having a group of fighters working with different coaches and then coming together under a single national coach a few days before the Olympics didn't appeal to him.
Campbell said he consulted several previous Olympic coaches and received the same message: Bring the fighters together for several months at a time.
"I don't know of an Olympic sport that doesn't have Olympic coaches," Millman said. "What is the logic of working with one coach for a year and then change in 60 days? I think there is a logic of working with someone all the way through."
Despite the complaints of the personal coaches, Millman and Campbell both insist many of the fighters were not in good condition when they arrived in Colorado. They said they sent them to some of the best trainers and doctors. Campbell said several medical conditions were identified that probably would not have been diagnosed if the fighters had continued to live at home. Surgeries were performed, injuries were healed.
"We're healthy now," he proclaimed.
And some fighters have welcomed the Colorado Springs program. The two trainers who worked with heavyweight Deontay Wilder -- who took up boxing only a year before the August 2007 trials -- were delighted with the idea he could go someplace where he could work with a coaching staff and improve. Featherweight Raynell Williams said this week that Campbell has taught him several international methods, including trying to stay away from one spot and using angles to cut off the blows from opposing fighters.
Millman said he loves the idea that the boxing team has become a team rather than a collection of fighters from around the country. He wants to see the program continue, most likely with Campbell.
Ultimately, though, the decision will be made inside the Beijing Workers' Gymnasium, where the results will reveal if sending a group of fighters to the mountains paid off.
"It's all about the medals," said Robert Martin of Washington, the punching coach on the U.S. team. "If we win a lot of gold medals, it's going to be a popular program."