An Interview With Sarah Deming
By Chris Akers
“I say that every boxing gym has more comedy and tragedy than the complete works of Shakespeare.”
The exploration of boxing lends itself to art. The way some boxers move in the ring as though it’s a balletic routine.
The visceral yet beautiful way it’s brutality is written. How the tough lives of boxers, both real and fictional, are depicted both on the big screen and on the page.
It is also an avenue to a better life for people stuck on the bottom rung of the social ladder and living in neighbourhoods that are devalued, derided and avoided.
From boxing as an amateur, to writing about the sport and to coaching kids from rough backgrounds, Sarah Deming’s time in the sport encompasses all of this. She has also written a book, Gravity, about the life of a young female boxer from the moment she first sets foot in a gym.
Deming’s own journey into the sport started with something much more calming: yoga
“I graduated from college in ’95 and I studied literature at school, but I didn’t know how to support myself out of college. I didn’t come from a rich family. I was really into yoga at that time, so I got certified as a yoga teacher.
“This was 25 years ago, when yoga wasn’t popular back then. But I started teaching in health clubs in New York and I did some cooking a little bit to earn a living, so I was just kind of hustling. But I was getting into the fitness world and that’s how I actually started boxing, because there was a tai chi class after my yoga class in this health club and I started taking tai chi a lot and I loved tai chi.
“Then my tai chi teacher told me that in order to be better at tai chi, that I should kick and punch, because tai chi’s a martial art even though it’s slow and meditative. So I took a kickboxing class and I just fell in love with it. My kickboxing coach was actually more of a boxer and he took me to his gym where he came up in and I met his coach, who was the inspiration for the character of Coach in Gravity.”
The gym was the New Bed-Stuy Boxing Center in Brooklyn. The coach in question was George Washington, who had trained boxers at amateur level the calibre of Riddick Bowe and Mark Breland. From there she competed as an amateur.
“I competed in the Golden Gloves that first year. That first year I made in the finals and I lost at Madison Square Garden and I was just hooked and I wanted to keep fighting until I won.”
This feeling she captures brilliantly in an article she wrote for the New York Times in 2016 titled ‘How Boxing Got Me To Fear My Fears.’
The signs of her writing talent are there, as she describes her emotions from the dressing room, to stepping into the ring and the fear she had of being humiliated. Yet this did not stop her from returning into the ring and in 2001, she won the New York Golden Gloves as a bantamweight.
After that success, she tried to leave. She had to leave. She gave her mom her kidney and had to stop sparring, though she was still hitting the heavy bags. But boxing finds a way to pull back in even the most resolute who walk away. In this case, it was something historic that was announced which enticed her back and encouraged her to write about the sport and the need to give something back to it.
“The story of women finally being allowed in the Olympics. Then it became two things. It became writing about that, plus I had always wanted to give back to boxing and to have some more volunteer service work in my life which I didn’t have at that time. I had periodically throughout the years sent emails to PAL (Police Athletic League) gyms which said, ‘Hey you need a tutor?’ and nobody ever got back to me.
“At this point I hadn’t published a book in a while. I had published three novels at this point, a children’s novel and two ghost-written erotic romantics. But with my writing career not much was happening. It was like the story of female boxers going for the Olympics I felt like I had to tell. Then I started doing the research on the New York candidates.
“There were going to be two women from New York competing (at the trials). I found out their gym was called Cops and Kids and it was Atlas Cops and Kids at that point, funded by Teddy Atlas and his foundation. So I called up the foundation. I had Teddy Atlas on the phone and he was great. I said to him ‘I’ve been trying to volunteer do you…….’ and he right away said ‘we always need people in the gyms.’ So then I started volunteering as a tutor and coached and teaching yoga at our gym in Flatbush, Brooklyn. So I was drawn back into the sport in two ways – one as a writer covering the elite women and their journey and two as a coach and mentor of the young, mostly boys at East Flatbush, Brooklyn.”
Cops and Kids started about 25 years ago by a retired narcotics detective named Pat Russo. Concerned about community policing in the neighbourhoods where he worked and wanted to get beyond the police having an adversarial relationship with the communities they served, he instead looked for ways to help the communities and serve the needs they had.
“The thing that is heard the most, was that there was a need for safe places for kids to go after school. He had boxed as an amateur as a cop, so he started these free gyms to bring kids in. It’s a real kind of family space. We’re open after school. Everybody can join who’s under the age of 21. Very rarely do we kick people out. Kids stay with us into adulthood. They box and are coached by US boxing certified coaches.”
When they step into the gym, it isn’t just their boxing technique that they will help the kids with.
“Once they’re in the door, I try to talk to them about how they are doing in school. They’re not always that interested in getting academic mentorship. But some of them do. We’ll bring in a paper that they want help on or work with me on standardised tests.
“One of the most satisfying things I’ve been able to do over the years is a couple of young men who wanted to join the armed forces but couldn’t pass the entrance exam. I worked with them intensely for a couple of months and then they passed. They are on to a better life and more choices and career opportunities. It’s surprising the places it takes you, as essentially I’m a pacifist. I’m not an army type person at all. But our kids are in tough neighbourhoods and the reality of life for kids from these underprivileged neighbourhoods often is real grim. The schools can be really shitty. Some of these homework assignments I see, I am appalled at what the teachers are giving out. If a kid has a learning disability, it’s often very easy for them to slip through the cracks.
“So we try and help out however we can. It’s really moving the things that happen in the gym, giving out turkeys for Thanksgiving, helping homeless kids get connected with shelter. Maybe if you’re a person of deep faith which I’m not, maybe the churches do that for your community. But for me, my faith is boxing. The family that develops in the gym. It’s been great to watch boys grow up into men, who I’m proud of. We turn out really good athletes as well as helping make better citizens. It’s just really changed my life. I feel a lot better about myself now as a person because of the social justice kind of work that I’m doing with these kids. I’m connecting to this beautiful community through the gym that I wasn’t just 10 years ago.”
Cops and Kids isn’t just based in one place in New York. There are gyms at different locations.
“Two in Staten Island, which is the most under looked borough in New York, but it’s where our founders from. So he started these in housing projects in Staten Island, one in Parkhill, that’s the oldest location and one in the Berry houses. The location where I work is in Flatbush in East Brooklyn at the Flatbush Gardens Housing Complex. It’s been close for maybe six months now. We’re doing a gut renovation. I’m in the middle of writing grant proposals for it.”
The success of this program is such, that they have developed boxers that have competed in the past two Olympics and who have since turned professional. Marcus Browne, the current light heavyweight prospect from Cops and Kids’ Staten Island gym, was the United States’ light heavyweight representative at London 2012. In Rio four years ago, Richardson Higgins represented Halti at light welterweight.
“We have a young man called Bruce Carrington, who’s one of the Olympic hopefuls for the U.S. I’ve worked with him since he was 15 and he’s now such a wonderful ambassador of the sport and a great kid. We’re hoping he’ll be in Tokyo.”
As mentioned, it was two things that drew Deming back into boxing. The other was the writing and this is where Gravity comes in. Its lead character is Gravity Delgado, a teenager with a troubled home life who enters a gym in Brooklyn and finds a melting pot of fighters and a surrogate father of sorts. It takes as its inspiration from the story of two time Olympic gold medallist Claressa Shields as well as from Virginia Woolf.
“I think Chris if you had been there, up for my journey, the selection of the first women Olympics who were going to represented boxing at the Olympics, you too would have been drawn to Claressa. I just think she was the biggest story of the Games. She was so young. She was so fun like a 16 year old. She hadn’t learned to censor herself with the media yet. She was just honest, really smart and brash and saying what she felt. She was so tremendously talented. So fast. Such hand speed for a big woman.
“It was just impossible not to fall in love with her and root for her. It was really fun rooting for her as she never lost. I mean she only lost once and that was to Savannah Marshall in China. Claressa just stood out as a great heroine. The point I made about Virginia Woolf was just that, they are both extraordinary performers who seemed to me to transcend gender.
“For me, when I first read Virginia Woolf, I had this epiphany that women could be as brilliant as men. That was the first women I ever encountered whose mind I felt was so powerful that she single-handedly could convinces anyone that gender was not a limit to genius. I feel that way about Clarissa’s boxing.”
Alongside this, aspects of Deming’s own identity influenced the lead character, though there are differences between the two of them.
“I used some of my ethnic background, that I’m Jewish on my mom’s side, so I made Judaism a part of her identity. However, I’m not very religious and I wanted Gravity to be religious. She has an absent father. Basically, the childhood is like my childhood, growing up with a single Jewish mom. A dad who’s not around and a younger brother, who is a little vulnerable emotionally, as he’s growing up without a father and you as the big sister have to be a bit of a parental figure to yourself and to your younger sibling, although Gravity is a much better big sister than I was.
“I was kind of a crappy big sister (laughs) but Gravity’s really protective. We weren’t terrible poor but were pretty poor growing up. Some of the details like the cockroaches in the apartment, that’s my apartment I grew up in and it was really roach infested and was traumatising for me. My mom is a much better mom than the mom in the book. My mom was not an alcoholic. She was not abusive, although she suffered from bipolar disorder, so that gave her an inconsistency that was troubling to a kid and I tried to put that in the book too. This mom who, sometimes could be good and loving but sometimes is not available.”
Gravity articulates the fears of its lead character, inside and outside the ring, very well. Boxing more than any other sport, showcases a person’s trepidations and does not allow its combatants any hiding place. In the New York Times article referenced earlier, Deming described her fear when boxing at Madison Square Garden as the ‘nakedness of confrontation.’ Did that fear return when she became a published writer or did she learn anything from her boxing career that helped her with her writing?
“That’s a great question. I think I have a lot more confidence with my writing than I do or ever did about my boxing. Writing in a certain way a more cowardly pursuit. Yes, I’m there in my words, but I’ve had all the chance in the world to polish them and get them ready before I put them out there and then I am not there when they’re consumed. So if somebody hates me or thinks it’s stupid, I don’t have to feel it. As a writer, it is true, you’re vulnerable, especially nowadays on the internet, you’re very vulnerable to critique.
“Readers can read feedback, can say very unkind things often, but it’s also as a writer your choice what you engage with and what you don’t. For example, I blocked the site Goodreads on my computer, because it hurts my feelings too much to go in and see people saying, sometimes really negative, cruel things. My first novel, four people said it was anti-Semitic because I had this character, a father who gives his daughter these really white Jewish gifts that she thinks are really boring and it seems like I was making fun of Judaism to some people, which I would never do.
“My Jewish heritage is part of me and I felt bad that they thought that. But I couldn’t deal with reading this whole site that people saying I’m anti-Semitic nor did I want to engage and say ‘Hey, this is Sarah. I’m not anti-Semitic.’ You kind of can’t. People are going to say what they want about you. So I guess with the nakedness of being a writer, what I try to do is protect myself and say that I’ve given you the best I can with my book and now I going to try and not really read the reviews if I can stand it.
“Boxing was always scary to me and I never got over the fear. I still did it but every time I got in the ring I was scared. When I’m writing I’m scared of the rejection and I do think that probably has helped me back a little bit as a writer because I don’t apply everywhere. I only send pieces in when I’m pretty sure I have a good chance of getting something accepted. A friend of mine is a political writer. She says she loves getting rejected. She tried to get rejected as much as she can, as she knows if she’s got ten rejections she’s done something right and eventually that’s how you get accepted. I couldn’t do that. I’m too much of a scaredy cat for that. I’m too sensitive and I probably shouldn’t be.”
At this point, we discuss the books we are writing, about how neither of our subjects are the main stars of their professions, but how each person’s story illustrates the struggles of their chosen profession and their lives. How boxers tended to be more assessible, more honest, not as media trained.
“I think everyone says that about boxers, that there are the most assessible athletes. It’s hard to tell a boring story about boxing.”
Having done both boxing and writing, Deming thinks that there are similarities between the two.
“Both things are simple in a certain way and regular people think they can do them. A regular guy thinks ‘I can box, I can fight,’ because everybody fights. People think they can be a writer, as hopefully everybody writes. And it’s not like the techniques are that complex, but it’s very hard to throw a powerful right hand and it’s very hard to shape a powerful sentence. One thing that’s nice, that happens in boxing and happens in writing, is that you practice the same thing over and over again. You think you’re not getting any better, but one day, something is just easier that was always hard for you before.
“One day you just realise ‘Oh! I’m throwing that right hand. I know what he meant when he said to let the right hand go.’ After a few years, you understand it. I think the same thing happens in writing. You suddenly can do a thing that you couldn’t do before, like leaving things unsaid and making them shine through or you suddenly see how to make transitions in a different way. That’s the most rewarding, wonderful part of it, I think.”
Gravity is out now to buy on Amazon.
To find out more about Cops and Kids renovation, click here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/sarah039s-campaign-for-nypds-fighting-finest-inc