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A Blow for Equality

Kelsey Jeffries

Kelsey Jeffries hopes to bring women's boxing into the mainstream

By Martha Engber

IN THE CORNER of the ring, 21-year-old Kelsey Jeffries of Sunnyvale starts to prance. She stops to roll her ankles, shoulders or neck, then again starts prancing and shadowboxing. She wears padded headgear, black shorts and a blue sleeveless shirt that shows her broad, muscled back and arms. Her expression is blank, neither nervous nor excited.

The round starts, and with 100 people watching, Jeffries moves in to meet her female boxing opponent from Roseville. The two move around and throw some cautious punches. Jeffries starts to land some blows and the opponent backs away, but Jeffries pursues, throwing punches to the head from both sides.

The opponent appears to be tiring, but Jeffries maintains a dancing energy as she keeps her head tucked and her fists up to protect her face, all the while studying her opponent and moving fast to connect with flesh. She bores into her opponent, chasing her around the ring, pinning her against the ropes.

One three-minute round, then two, then the final buzzer sounds, and it's Jeffries' arm the referee raises when the winner is announced.

What's evident from watching the fight is that the opponent looks like a woman who boxes, while Jeffries looks like a woman boxer. It's in the way she holds her shoulders when she walks, the steady look in her eyes and the unflagging energy. This is a woman who this week will attend the country's first-ever national women's amateur boxing tournament, held July 16­19 in Augusta, Ga., and sponsored by USA Boxing, which opened up official amateur boxing to women just four years ago.

"A lot of these guys will stop when they see her training. She's amazing," said trainer Basilio Deanda, who spars with her. "I found out that she could hit good. I've had girls punch me before, and it was like being hit with a marshmallow."

He hit her once with a straight right jab to see if she could take it. It shook her a little, he said, but she rebounded. "She said, 'Is that the best you could do?' I started laughing."

At 5 feet 5 inches tall and 120 pounds, and with shoulder-length blond hair, Jeffries--like most people--wouldn't stand out in a crowd. But when she puts her hair in a ponytail, pulls off her sweatshirt, dons her boxing shoes and gloves and starts her workout, the intensity is there, and the lean, muscled body is apparent.

Her intense, confident determination was apparent at age 4, when she joined a soccer league to follow in the athletic footsteps of her two older brothers, said Jeffries' mother, Diana Ortiz of Sunnyvale.

Even though it was a co-ed league, Jeffries wanted her hair cut short before starting practice because she didn't want anyone to know she was a girl.

Jeffries' brother Jared acknowledged that having a sister who boxed was a tough idea to get used to, as was having his friends jokingly ask if his sister could beat him up. He told them she was certainly feisty enough.

This, after all, was a kid who in third grade got suspended from school for a day after clobbering a boy who took her soccer ball and then grabbed her shirt.

Jeffries said she doesn't know how she circumvented the traditional girl route of dance and gymnastics classes to wind up in boxing. She figures God has a reason for her being where she is, and she is therefore happy to pursue what she loves. While trainers and officials believe she and other female boxers have that right, some can't get used to the idea.

"As a boxing person, I have to accept it. As a person, I don't like it," said Sonny Marson, president of Northern California USA Boxing. "I just feel it's a man's sport."

However politically incorrect for the times, Marson voiced commonly held misgivings: that women aren't built for the rigors of boxing; that women boxing women will lead to women boxing men; that "the minute a woman gets hurt, they'll abolish the sport."

"I felt that way--until Kelsey came along," said Angelo Rogers, a trainer with 59 years of dedication to boxing who volunteers his time to run a gym six days a week.

Norma Yasinitsky of San Jose has also learned to appreciate boxing. After 10 years in tae kwon do, she recently started training at Rogers' gym with her husband, Paul.

"It's the hardest workout I've ever done," Yasinitsky said. "Then you're dead, and you feel great. When it starts working the way it should be, it's like--whoa."

It's that rhythmic click that seems to draw Jeffries, too. She said she's still not sure how she got into boxing, and she doesn't care what other people think. "I just do my own thing, and if somebody's got a problem with it, that's their business. ... The image of who I think I should be--that's my role model."

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From the July 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro.

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