A makeshift boxing gym that once was a garage behind Walker Mill Baptist Church in Capitol Heights is the training ground for two Olympic hopefuls from Prince George’s County.
It is mid July, and inside the stifling-hot facility, which has no air conditioning, No Xcuse Boxing head coach Bernard Roach is fatigued, having spent the early-morning hours battling four huge boat fires at National Harbor as a firefighter with District of Columbia Engine 15.
Roach had skipped his morning training session with D’Mitrius Ballard of Temple Hills and Jerry Odom of Bowie in order to squeeze in a few hours of sleep. But with Odom and Ballard preparing for the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team Trials — Sunday through Aug. 6 in Mobile, Ala. — Roach fights the urge to rest and commences with the evening training session.
“I’ve got to push them and set an example,” says Roach, a U.S. Army veteran and former boxer.
Shortly after arriving, Ballard and assistant coach Lamont Roach Sr. share a laugh as Roach puts the gloves on Odom’s hands. Odom gives Lamont Sr. a little hug before entering the ring for sparring.
Without willing partners from outside of the gym, the 178-pound Odom has to spar against his good friend Ballard, who is 165 pounds.
By round three of the session, both are showing visible signs of fatigue, panting and leaning on one another, but Bernard Roach doesn’t allow them to let up.
“It’s time to start picking it up,” he tells them.
As the two slug on one another, Lamont Roach Sr. restlessly grimaces when he sees technical mistakes the two are making. At the end of the fifth 3-minute round, Odom takes a huge breath and Ballard falls to the mat, totally spent.
The right stuff
What does it take to be an Olympian?
“Focus, dedication and passion for what you do,” Bernard Roach says. “You have to sacrifice. It’s 85 percent mental and only 15 percent physical.”
And the physical challenges don’t end with five rounds of sparring.
Odom proceeds to put on an elevation mask, which resembles a miner’s oxygen mask and is used to restrict air intake. The purpose is to mimic training in high altitude at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., which is where the winner of each weight class at the Olympic Trials will spend the better part of the next year leading up to the 2012 Olympics in London.
After jumping rope with the mask on for about 6 minutes, the sweat is rolling from Odom’s head, chest, arms and shoulders.
“It’s tough and hard to breathe in this thing,” Odom says. “It’s like feeling a lot of pressure on your lungs. It helps out a lot with your stamina.”
Ballard uses the mask while running on a treadmill before heading to a weight machine to do lateral pull downs. He says training has been difficult — and accelerated — over the past month. Odom qualified for the Olympic Trials by finishing as the runner-up in the U.S. Senior National Championships last month, and Ballard qualified by winning the 165-pound title at the Police Athletic League Championships last fall.
“Coming to the gym for two-a-days is the hardest part,” Ballard said. “You go home hungry, fatigued and sore, having to soak in Epsom salt. You have to be in top condition, and when you think you are in the best condition, you’re not. You have to keep pushing yourself to do more. The fight is the easy part of the process.”
Odom and Ballard will be joined by three other Prince George’s County residents at the Olympic Trials, Gregory Outlaw of Glenarden and Shaborn Ryals and Allen Russell, both of Capitol Heights.
Lamont Roach Sr. knows how all five embarked on this journey.
“Its hard work and dedication,” he says. “They’re students of the game. They listen well. The experience from traveling to all these tournaments over the years has gotten them to this point. Every major tournament there is, we get them in there, and it’s paying off.”
The long road
Odom was not always the focused individual that his craft and coaches demand. When he first arrived at No Xcuse four years ago, he was wearing an ankle bracelet and serving house arrest for several juvenile offenses that included theft and assault.
He was caught up in the ills that many youth face growing up in poverty in Washington, D.C., and admits that he nearly was sentenced to juvenile detention until his 21st birthday — which is three years from now.
Moving in with an uncle in Bowie four years ago and joining No Xcuse has had a profound effect on his life.
“Back then, I thought I was going to be on the corner and hustling, not finishing school or things like that,” Odom says. “Being here under coach Roach and in the gym changed me as a man and as a person. They give me good perspective. They don’t tell me what I want to do, they tell me what I need to do. That helped me out a lot. It changed my mental aspect. It made me change my life for the positive. I do stuff to keep my mind clean. It’s a lot of love in this gym. I can say that everyone in here has helped me a lot. I have matured as a man and I appreciate them for helping me with little bits and pieces.”
Ballard did not face the same challenges that Odom encountered. His first athletic aspirations were in football, and he was a member of the team at Potomac High School until he won a Silver Gloves title in 2009 and became devoted to boxing.
Despite coming from different circumstances, boxing has had the same effect on Ballard that it had on Odom.
“The most gratifying part is the maturity I’ve gained by becoming a young man,” Ballard says. “I’ve been disciplining myself and going to church. I’m just thankful for what I’ve got and not being mad about what I don’t. I have my parents that support me, I have a team that supports me. I came here when I was a 14-year-old boy and now I’m 18 and a young man.”
“It’s a fairy tale story,” Ballard adds. “With Jerry coming from all of the negatives and the struggles in his life and me on the opposite end, having family supporting and around me, playing football and doing boxing. We’ve met up and become like brothers, and we’re on the journey together to make the Olympic team. What more can you ask for?”
It’s the end of training for the day and Ballard sits and listens to his iPod. Odom sits next to him, guzzling an orange-flavored Powerade. Lamont Roach Jr. sits nearby, casually chatting and joking at the conclusion of another hard day.
Bernard Roach looks on.
“What they’re doing, I know,” he says. “I boxed in the 1988 Olympic Trials. It takes mental intensity and refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer. It’s your skills, but more of your desire than your skills. It’s your will.”