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White Center Boxing Club

January 7, 2016

Just south of the Seattle city line in a small corner of Steve Cox Memorial Park, the White Center PAL (Police Activities League) Boxing Club has held training weekday evenings for close to 10 years. Founded in 2004 by two King County police officers, the goal was to provide an outlet for area youths and to increase interaction between law enforcement and the community. At the time, White Center was reeling from years of high crime and economic stagnation. Throughout the 2000s, the city had levels of poverty and unemployment that were double that of the rest of the county, and about 25 percent more violent crime. The gym was a welcome addition to the community, but in 2007, it was preparing to close its doors. That’s when Tony Rago stepped in.

The first thing one notices when walking in to White Center PAL is the size of the place. Twenty girls and boys buzz around what was once a handball court, in turns jumping rope, throwing combinations at one of the heavy, hanging bags and receiving one-on-one instruction from the gym's volunteer coaches: Keith Weir and Tony Rago. It gets hot and stuffy within minutes, but neither the coaches nor the young boxers appear hung up about how much space or training resources they have — they’re here to work hard and earn what’s coming to them.
At a tournament at Evergreen High School in Burien, coaches Tony Rago (center) and Keith Weir (right) give instructions to a young boxer. Both Volunteers, Rago and Weir have run the White Center PAL (Police Activities League) Boxing Club since 2007. Credit: Eric Brandt
The gravelly baritone of the 68-year-old Rago is unmistakable. “When I first walked into the gym, I think there were two or three heavy bags on the wall; no ring, no coaches, just a few kids hitting a bag. So I offered my services,” he says.
Rago went to work, joined soon after by Weir. Today, the gym is still in the same tiny handball court, but now has 10 heavy bags, speed bags, hundreds of gloves, protective headgear and a full size ring. In tournaments around the country, they have recorded hundreds of match wins, won three team championship trophies and have produced two national champions. And every day new kids are arriving eager to learn.  
“The goal is to help these kids become strong men and women,” says the fast-talking Weir. “To give them the confidence and self-esteem so they can say 'no' to the things they don’t need to be doing — the drugs and violence. And also to make pretty good boxers out of 'em.”
Karyna Garcia-Marin, 15, and her two sisters are clear embodiments of the changes that are possible here.  
“Not many people think of me as a tough girl,” says Karyna. “Coming to the gym makes me fit and strong and helps me with challenges from schoolwork to uncomfortable situations. My next goal is to fight in a real match.”
Karyna Garcia-Marin, 15, unloads on one of the gym’s heavy bags. The White Center PAL Boxing Club has trained many female boxers including Karyna’s two sisters. Eric Brandt
17-year-old Alex Alvarez echoes similar sentiments. “A lot of my friends were getting into drugs and pressuring me to come with them, and I really felt alone,” he says. “Thankfully I found this place and am now able to express myself in a more positive way. And now I have new friends here at the gym and a lot to look forward to.”
The gym trains girls and boys ages 9 through 17. All newcomers have to get through intense physical and mental training for months before they are allowed to spar or simulate real match action with an opponent. It can be many more months before they are approved to take part in a real tournament. They also have to maintain or improve their grades, stay out of trouble with administrators and law enforcement and come to practice on time every time. If they are caught breaking the law or are suspended from school, they don’t come to practice. There are no exceptions, even for the best boxers.  
Coach Rago poses post-match with boxers Alex Alvarez, 17 (left) and Joey Chim, 15.  Rago recently retired from his job of 35 years in order to spend more time as a volunteer coach for the White Center PAL Boxing Club. Eric Brandt
Rago says the tough love approach helps to teach them life skills as well as boxing skills. “A lot of these kids have been beat up at school or have tough home situations and they need that strong presence in their lives,” he says. “You can see the transformation right before your eyes when they go from cocky and having a chip on their shoulders to eventually realizing that, if they put in the hard work and dedication in the gym, they’re going to get much more out of life out of it.”
At the gym’s annual fall tournament at Evergreen High School in Burien, the rewards are apparent. Some 400 people from the community and from boxing clubs across the Northwest pack into the school’s gymnasium, eager to see these youths prove themselves and to cheer them on. The bouts are sanctioned by USA Boxing, the nation’s amateur boxing organization, which sends fighters to the Olympics.
One of the first boxers from White Center PAL is 11-year-old Estiven Salazar, one of three brothers raised by a single mom. At just over 4 feet high, he’s among the youngest boxers in the tournament, and some people in the audience are noticeably worried for him. But not Rago.  
“He’s a tough little boxer,” he says. “And besides, the goal here isn’t to knock your opponent out or hurt them; it’s to touch them with your gloves and score points. That’s why every boxer wears protective gear.”
Coach Tony Rago tapes the hands of 11-year-old boxer Estiven Salazar before his USA Boxing-sanctioned match at Evergreen High School in Burien. Under USA Boxing rules, youths must be at least 11 years old and must wear full protective gear. Credit: Nils Cowan
Estiven throws flurries of punches for three, 90-second rounds and emerges the winner, cracking a wide smile as the referee raises his hand.  But that’s as far as his celebration goes, as the gym strictly forbids any gloating or trash-talking.  Estiven’s thoughts are on other things: “My mom, my uncle and my math teacher were all there,” he says. “That really made me happy to perform in front of them. But next week it’s back to the gym to train harder.”
Another boxer, 14-year-old National Gold Gloves Champion Willie Gomez, wins his fight as well, to the delight of his mother, Brenda, who raised him and his two brothers.
“At first I thought boxing was something bad for him, but now I’m his biggest fan,” she says, tearing up. “He’s becoming a man now, and a great example for his brothers.”
14-year-old Willie Gomez has been with the White Center PAL Boxing Club for two years.  In July 2015, Willie won a National Youth Amateur Golden Gloves Championship, the gym’s second boxer to do so. Eric Brandt
All proceeds from the tournament, including the sale of White Center t-shirts and sweatshirts, go towards the team’s travel expenses and to a scholarship fund aimed at helping as many boxers get to college as possible. Last year’s recipient, Brandon Aguirre, is now at the University of Washington in Seattle, studying and boxing on the university team.  
All of the positivity surrounding the gym has been echoed by changes to the community itself. Since 2010, White Center has seen a steep decline in violent crime, and a combination of new and established family-owned businesses are ushering in a welcome economic resurgence. The coaches and youths cramped inside the White Center PAL Boxing Club feel part of that positive change.
“The gym has helped the community by showing that violence isn’t the answer,” says Willie Gomez. “It’s taught us how to show respect for each other.”
He poses for one quick photo wearing his championship belt and then rejoins the team to prepare for upcoming regional tournaments that could spell a path to the Olympics. For these hard-working kids and their dedicated coaches, it seems anything is possible.



Made possible in part by

Nils Cowan

A native of Calgary, Canada who cut his teeth in the documentary industry of Washington, D.C., Nils moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 after working on a National Park Service film about Mt. Rainier and falling in love with the area. He has been producing non-fiction content for thirteen years, from broadcast and independent documentaries to museum films and non-profit PSAs. One of his most recent films, 'Beyond the Visible’ which reveals the inner workings and transformational science of the Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico, was just awarded the 2014 Cine Golden Eagle Award for non-fiction storytelling.  Nils lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids.

More stories by Nils Cowan

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