Plenty of punch on hand at grand reopening of boxing facility in New London

Roberto Vega, 2009 New England Golden Gloves boxing champion, right, performs a glove work boxing demonstration with Heavy Hitters USA Director Kent Ward as Heavy Hitters and the New London Housing Authority marked the grand reopening Thursday of the boxing facility and training program at Thames River Apartments in New London.
Roberto Vega, 2009 New England Golden Gloves boxing champion, right, performs a glove work boxing demonstration with Heavy Hitters USA Director Kent Ward as Heavy Hitters and the New London Housing Authority marked the grand reopening Thursday of the boxing facility and training program at Thames River Apartments in New London.

New London - The boxing room on the ground floor of Building A of the Thames River Apartments was like a home for Jeremy Cortes.

The 14-year-old, who lives on the third floor of the high-rise apartment building, said he trained in the room every Friday evening and developed a serious interest in the sport.

"I like to stay active, I don't like staying at home all day and playing video games," Cortes said. "I really liked it here, I enjoy the training, and I saw myself get in shape."

So when the facility closed more than a year ago, Cortes wrote a letter to the New London Housing Authority property manager who oversees the apartments asking that the boxing program be reinstated.

And on Thursday evening, Cortes was one of about two dozen on hand as Heavy Hitters USA held a grand reopening of the Thames River Boxing Facility at the low-income, federally subsidized high-rise complex.

Once the program begins training on Jan. 22, the roughly 200 kids living in the apartment complex will be able to work with trainers and coaches a few days a week to learn the basics of boxing, Heavy Hitters USA Director Kent Ward said.

"The kids will come in here, be introduced to boxing, and start to understand the concepts of it," Ward said, adding that the most important things the program teaches are values like responsibility, accountability, respect, trust and pride.

Likening it to a junior varsity program, Ward said kids who embrace boxing could begin more intensive training at his Whaling City Boxing Club gym on Bank Street.

"Hard work and dedication to this sport, good grades, and good behavior will put them into the varsity program," he said. "Then you get to do some great things in the sport."

Ward started Heavy Hitters USA with a group of supporters to provide after-school sports mentoring programs for local at-risk youth who would drop by Strike Zone to watch the older guys train. The organization was granted nonprofit status in 2005.

Participants are not charged a fee if they attend school and maintain good behavior in school, in the gym, and on the street.

But the boxing program is about far more than just teaching kids how to fight.

"We use all the lessons learned in athletics to cross over to what the kids need in life," Ward said.

"There is absolutely nothing that happens in sports that does not happen in life. Whether it's the boss that yells, or the coach that yells, or the starting position you don't get or the job you don't get, it crosses over."

Thursday's grand opening included a demonstration of techniques by Roberto Vega and Kelsey Kaiser, each a New England Golden Gloves champion who trained at Whaling City Boxing Club. Housing Authority Executive Director Sue Shontell, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, City Council President Wade A. Hyslop and City Councilor Michael Passero also attended.

"This New London facility will serve as a safe haven for our at-risk youth," said Finizio, himself a recreational pugilist. "It will be a fitness venue where youth can release some of their frustrations in a structured, positive, educational setting while learning the core values of boxing: responsibility, respect and self-determination."

Orlando Peace, the program director for Heavy Hitters USA, said he hopes that the Thames River Apartments facility will eventually have the money to be open to the adults who live in the apartments so parents and their children can share a common interest.

"A mom can come down, work out, feel good and now they have a conversation to have over dinner. We're talking about the whole family. That's the only way you're going to fix any of the problems that we have," Peace said. "Change, if I have anything to do with it, is going to come out of this room."

c.young@theday.com

Twitter: @ColinAYoung

Kelsey Kaiser, 2011 and 2012 New England Golden Gloves boxing champion, right, and Heavy Hitters USA Director Kent Ward put on a quick boxing demonstration Thursday as Heavy Hitters and the New London Housing Authority mark the grand opening of a boxing facility and training program at Thames River Apartments in New London.
Kelsey Kaiser, 2011 and 2012 New England Golden Gloves boxing champion, right, and Heavy Hitters USA Director Kent Ward put on a quick boxing demonstration Thursday as Heavy Hitters and the New London Housing Authority mark the grand opening of a boxing facility and training program at Thames River Apartments in New London.

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