Boxing and beyond

2011 and 2012 New England Golden Gloves boxing champion Kelsey Kaiser, right, laughs as she steps into the training ring with Heavy Hitters Boxing Founder Kent Ward on Jan. 8, 2015. (Tim Cook/The Day)
2011 and 2012 New England Golden Gloves boxing champion Kelsey Kaiser, right, laughs as she steps into the training ring with Heavy Hitters Boxing Founder Kent Ward on Jan. 8, 2015. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Boxers are frequently asked, “Why this sport?” The answer is conveyed succinctly and comprehensively in a short poem by one of the sport’s venerable elder statesmen, Rollie Pier of New London, veteran of 108 formal fights:

“The boxer stands alone, with no one at his side

The boxer stands alone, with nothing but his pride

He neither fears nor considers defeat

And in the course of combat, moves side-to-side in strategic retreat

Through all the blood, cuts and bruises

He battles on, never giving ground

The boxer is no doubt, the staunchest man around!”

In that brief verse, Pier sums up what spurs on those consumed by the “Sweet Science.” His perspective illustrates what beats in the hearts of all serious pugilists, and how the world of the boxing ring lends strength and hope to their endeavors outside the squared circle too.

A visit to Whaling City Boxing’s home facility at 367 Bank St. — or to its satellite programs at New London Athletics Center at 436 Broad St. — validates the potency that Pier’s words contain. Watch club owner Kent Ward’s members as they train. You’ll see it in their eyes and in their actions.

Watch especially two young women, Kelsey Kaiser of Waterford and Marcia Agripino of Ledyard, and learn how their efforts invested in the Sweet Science have not only supplemented their full-time professions, but also enhanced the quality of their private lives.

Agripino and Kaiser wind up in arenas where everyone is proficient and accomplished. There are no sure-wins, no “ham-and-egger” matches, as the saying goes. And in that field of hardcore competitors, both have attained championships and Golden Gloves titles; Agripino also made the jump into the professional ranks, where she has established herself as one never to be taken lightly.

Both she and Kaiser have basked in victory and also learned the lessons that come with defeats so narrow, a single whim of a judge often decides the outcome. What they have learned in the ring has helped guide both into full-time careers that demand the same commitment and strength of spirit: Agripino as a surgical technician at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, and Kaiser as an officer in the Connecticut State Corrections, where she is assigned to the safety of primary administrators. Both women now also conduct a program for female boxers, Lady Luck Boxing, at the gym’s Broad Street facility.

Both attended area high schools and then continued their studies in different New England colleges. Both dealt head-on with struggles in their personal lives and dismissed pressing obstacles that once seemed insurmountable.

“I never excelled academically in high school, but I did athletically, and that resulted in my being heavily recruited by colleges,” Kaiser said proudly. Looking back at her years in high school as tumultuous at times, the world of sports never let her down through it all, and she accepted recruitment offers from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2006 to play varsity field hockey.

In returning back to southeastern Connecticut, Kaiser was hired by the Waterford school system from which she had graduated, working in the field of special education as a paraprofessional.

Missing from her life, though, was the competitive sports arena that had played so prominent a role throughout her childhood and teenage years.

“I was attending workout gyms, but that wasn’t giving me enough athletically,” Kaiser said.

Then, a decade ago, two friends she knew from her workouts at the gym, Nick Sergiacomi and Brennan Ward (Kent’s son) suggested she try boxing. But her first trip to the Bank Street gym proved nerve-racking until she met the elder Coach Rollie, who works with all of the gym’s newcomers.

“Rollie is always so encouraging to everyone, and I liked him right from the start,” she said, beaming as she spoke of Pier and his teaching methods. “When you first meet him, you’re drawn in by the kindness in his eyes, and it causes you to trust him right away. It makes you realize you’re in a place where the people teaching you are more like family. Kent’s the father here and Rollie’s the grandfather. It’s a home in itself.”

Sisterly friendship

That positive first experience at Whaling City Boxing for Kaiser would set the path she was to follow for the ensuing decade and in the footsteps of another young woman already training there since the earlier part of the millennium, Marcia Agripino. A sisterly friendship would form between the two, born of a mutual respect and a shared sense of commitment.

Those traits demonstrated by both women would command the respect of Ward and Pier, two men as old school and demanding of athletic mettle as any renowned sports coach.

“Boxing is a transient sport,” Pier said, “and most people who try it don’t stay with it for long.”

“These two are different than a lot of people who try the sport of boxing,” Ward said in agreement. “They showed the necessary perseverance and courage for it from the moment they came through the door.”

Agripino’s path to the world of boxing is somewhat akin to Kaiser’s, though at times a rockier one. Graduating Ledyard High in 2000, she openly admits to a reckless and freewheeling lifestyle during her school years, continuing in that vein after graduating. She is not one to be overwhelmed by disappointment or defeat, nor does she shun accountability for past missteps.

Like Kaiser, Agripino is spurred on by what lies ahead, rather than being haunted or impaired by what lurks in the past.

“I partied recklessly,” she said bluntly, “and I battled alcoholism to the point where it had nearly ruined my life.”

Her advent into the world of boxing was inspired by Brian Macy, a friend and very successful competitor in the sport who had told her previously that her partying habits would hamper any chance of participating in boxing. His honesty made an impact and marked the beginning of what would serve as a soulful elixir. As with Kaiser, Agripino found that the demands of training in a sport so complex provided her with the sense of discipline and focus she needed to attain the level of fulfillment she now enjoys.

“Boxing taught me to trust myself,” she said. “It played a major role in my overcoming alcoholism.”

It seems only fitting that another demanding frontier now looms before them and gym owner Kent Ward. It’s a world of people suffering the trauma of neuromuscular disorders, in particular the dreaded Parkinson’s disease.

“People suffering these horrible disorders suddenly feel they no longer have any relevance,” Ward said grimly.

He believes firmly in the strength of positive actions powered by a positive outlook, and he was approached a year ago by Catherine Gualtieri with the notion of initiating a program that might assist people plagued with such debilitating conditions.

“What we are presenting to them in the form of this program is the premise of ‘Hope Standing in the Doorway,’” he said. In consulting frequently with medical experts who serve as safety and efficiency advisors, Ward termed the gym’s new program the “Championship Rounds,” referencing the 15-round range that once comprised title fights.

“The thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth rounds were what determined the caliber and strength of your character as a fighter,” he explained.

Taking control

He concocted a metaphor to which the participants have responded most positively. “It’s as though someone with no understanding at all of how your body functions has suddenly seized control of it, and now everything is running amok. But through what you’re doing in here, you become that Hope figure in the doorway to fight it.”

And who has Kent Ward selected to coach this revolutionary aspect of boxing? Two people who know a bit about championship rounds, Kaiser and Agripino. Also working with the program are Ward’s son Brennan, a world class mixed martial artist; Dean Festa, one of the key members of Whaling City Boxing’s “Grey Dogs” program for boxers over 50; and athletic trainer Brandon Muse.

“It’s something wonderful seeing those tremors in their bodies all but disappearing as they walk over to the heavy bags and start their drills,” Kaiser said.

Agripino agreed. “Working with the people in this program inspires us. Just look at what they face every single day, then watch them taking back what’s rightfully theirs.”

As Rollie Pier’s poem so fittingly states, “Through all the blood, cuts and bruises, the boxer battles on, never giving ground.” And that is the answer to the persisting question, “Why boxing?”

POSTSCRIPT: Marcia Agripino’s most recent professional fight was in honor of Sullivan Anthony Schrader, who, after a courageous battle, succumbed to cancer on Feb. 4, just shy of his seventh birthday. His gentle spirit lives on through the love and devotion of family, and of dear friends like Marcia Agripino.

Kent Ward, owner of Whaling City Boxing in New London, tapes the hand of boxer Marcia Agripino during a fight. (Photo by CSB Photography)
Kent Ward, owner of Whaling City Boxing in New London, tapes the hand of boxer Marcia Agripino during a fight. (Photo by CSB Photography)

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