CORNWALL — Sara Daly, 37, at five-foot-four and the mother of two, seems an unlikely fist thrower. As co-founder of Waterfalls Day Spa in Middlebury and Waterfalls at Basin Harbor Club in Ferrisburgh, Daly spends her days surrounded by beauty and relaxation.
Nevertheless, she has put in nearly a year of serious training for the Golden Gloves boxing tournament that will take place at the Memorial Auditorium in Burlington early next year.
And Daly insists her profession, like boxing, is often misinterpreted. She will easily log five hours of massage each day, an “endurance event” in its own right, she said.
“A half an hour on the speed bag is nothing after you do 80 minutes of massage,” Daly said.
Daly manages to embrace her femininity while falling headfirst into a supremely masculine sport — she is forward, not forceful, and vigorous but leaves brash at the door — breaching numerous stereotypes along the way.
“I think that being strong is essentially sexy, and women who are comfortable with themselves and confident in anything they do is one way women can show their natural beauty,” she said.
Once a week, Daly meets with her coach, Brian Gill, in his small warehouse in Cornwall, where punching bags hang from heavy chains and farm supplies take up most of the floor space. Gill is the founder of the Cornwall Boxing Club and has trained around 15 local boxers over the past dozen years.
Gill hopes to enter Daly into a master’s bout for women ages 35 to 47 at next winter’s Golden Gloves tournament. Most boxers are ages 16 through 34, said Gill, with 18-to-20-year-olds at their prime. He is uncertain if Daly can find a competitor exactly in her weight and age class — after all, there are not many women like Daly boxing in Vermont.
“It’s still incredibly tough to find competition for females,” Gill said. “There are no guarantees.”
DAY AT THE GYM
Daly wraps her hands in yellow fabric before she starts a typical warm up. She wears a tee shirt that says “Cornwall Boxing Club” on the front and “We’re Not Baking Cookies” across the back.
“I’d rather be here than making cookies,” Daly said.
But it wasn’t easy getting here, Daly said. It was difficult finding a trainer in Addison County. Last fall, she was looking for a different way to stay in shape. She posted a handwritten note at Middlebury Fitness looking for a boxing trainer, rather than train based on what she’d seen in the movies.
“You can’t just watch ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and figure it out, which is what someone told me to do,” Daly said. “You can’t learn boxing by yourself and you have to do it with someone who knows what they’re doing. It’s an impossible sport to do on your own.”
Gill, who Daly has been training with for just under a year, took Daly under his wing, making her his fifth female boxer trainee. When Daly came in for her first training session, she did not know the first things about boxing — she lacked hand speed and punching power and forgot to keep her hands up, said Gill. He gave her the nickname “Three Bucks,” a lower-denomination version of actress Hilary Swank’s handle in “Million Dollar Baby.”
“Now she does most of the things you need to do to be good,” said Gill. “She’s made incredible improvement.”
To box, Gill said before anything else, you need legs and lungs.
“If you’ve got legs and lungs you can go the distance,” Gill said. “If you don’t have those, the rest of it doesn’t matter.”
Besides training with Gill, Daly works out four times a week on her own. When she shows up at the warehouse, which Daly has dubbed the “Addison County Boxing Gym,” the focus is solely on boxing. The warm-up, which usually consists of five to 10 minutes of step-up drills on a wooden crate, gets her blood flowing and muscles loose.
“The key to this drill is to breathe through the nose, keep the mouth closed,” said Gill. “You want to do everything with the mouthpiece in whether it’s this drill or running the speed bag. If you keep your mouthpiece in, your jaw will be secure. If you leave your jaw open, POW, you can get a broken jaw.”
Then Daly moves onto drills starting with the medium speed bag, a raindrop-shaped bag that is designed to develop timing, hand-eye coordination and rhythm. “It’s a lot of fun,” Gill said.
Next is the heavy bag, which is meant to feel more like punching a live human. The heavy bag builds conditioning and allows the boxer to learn how to throw different combinations of punches.
“It’s the opponent that doesn’t hit back,” Daly said, describing the heavy bag.
“But it’s an opponent that kicks your butt,” Gill said.
While she’s at the heavy bag, Gill keeps Daly moving.
“A left and a right, back to the jab, two jabs and a right, fake the left, throw the right, left and a right, good job, keep those hands up, left and a right and follow a right hook,” Gill said while he held the bag steady, examining Daly’s technique. “It doesn’t look very hard when you see her do it because she’s so good at it.”
PHYSIOLOGY OF BOXING
From a physical therapist’s standpoint, said Daly, when you use smaller muscle groups like your forearms, your body needs more oxygen to operate rather than a larger muscle group, like your thigh, which needs less oxygen.
“That’s why any athletes that use their arms as opposed to their legs need better lung capacity,” she said.
Among the other training tools that Daly uses to stay fit is a homemade device, a deflated rubber inner tube that is nailed to the wall, which she uses as resistance to strengthen her jabs. There is also the double-end bag and punch mitts, where Daly furiously clouts Gill’s gloved hands and occasionally bobs when he throws a swing back.
And as many punches as Daly has thrown, she has yet to be on the receiving end.
“Brian would never put me in a situation where I could get hurt,” she said.
Amateur boxing works on a point system, not by knocking people out. Though it has happened, Gill said knockouts aren’t very common. The boxer will gain a point if he or she lands the knuckle of their glove anywhere from the top of the head to the navel. It does not count if a punch lands on your opponent’s arms or gloves — those are block shots, explained Gill. Boxers fight for three rounds, three minutes per round. Also, Gill said, U.S. amateur boxing is highly conscientious about safety. Each boxer is equipped with headgear, a mouthpiece and groin protection. Hands are wrapped to protect the numerous breakable bones and are then fitted with sparring gloves.
Since the first Golden Gloves tournament in 1923, the organization has helped amateur boxers like Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson get to the top. But for women, said Gill, competition was always cut short — too short.
“In the past, you went to Memorial Auditorium and you won the state Golden Gloves and you were done,” said Gill. “There was no advancement.”
Now, women can move onto a regional competition and, if they win the regional, move onto the national level.
After the International Olympic Committee voted Aug. 14 to include women’s boxing in London’s 2012 Summer Games, competitive female boxers for the first time will set their sights on an international stage.
“I think it’s wonderful because in the past, you’d get a good female boxer, you’d take her, you would win, you would go home,” said Gill. “And that was as far as you could ever go.”
The future of Daly’s boxing career is uncertain. She doesn’t see herself in an Olympic ring.
And even if she cannot find a sparring partner to box with at the Golden Gloves competition next year, she said she feels great seeing women’s boxing finally get the recognition it deserves. Ultimately, Daly said, she would like to see boxing take root in Addison County.
“When my kids are old enough, I want them to box,” she said.
While breaking down gender barriers in her own way, Daly wears her femininity as she wears her gloves — like a champ.
When asked to divulge her weight class, Daly joked, “I’m a girl. In the context of women’s boxing, they don’t say what their weights are.”