By Jim McElhatton
City resident Iesha Kenney took the gold medal over the weekend at the USA Boxing Junior Olympics, a 40-plus-year-old national tournament that’s been a proving ground for the sport’s biggest names.
The victory comes after Kenney captured the gold at her first international tournament two months ago, propelling her to the upper echelon of the country’s young amateur boxers.
It’s a journey that began four years ago when Kenney, who will be a sophomore at T.C. Williams in the fall, walked into the Alexandria Boxing Club in the Charles Houston Recreation Center, found a chair in the corner and read books day after day for months until she finally started training.
Now, all of a sudden, the honor roll student, who plays violin in the school orchestra, is part of conversations about potential future Olympians. Women’s boxing made its Olympic debut in London last year.
“All the greats have come through here,” said Kay Koroma, Kenney’s coach, referring to the 42nd annual Junior Olympics in Alabama. “It’s a big stage. You look at the history of it, and you see names like Roy Jones Jr. and Danny Garcia. You’re writing a passage for yourself to the elite levels of amateur boxing, so we’re all really excited for her.”
But Kenney’s gold didn’t come easy. Later, she admitted feeling sick in her first fight against Siane Moore of St. Louis. The pair faced off in the 132-pound lightweight division. The boxers, who wear headgear, fight three rounds.
But after the opening bell, Koroma could tell that something wasn’t quite right with Kenney.
“She didn’t look as high energy and explosive as usual,” he said. “She was throwing her punches slow; everything was so slow.
“But what helped her out was the fact that even though she wasn’t throwing her punches hard, they were effective and that threw her opponent off. [Moore] was keeping her head down because she didn’t want to get hit with Iesha’s straight punches.”
After the fight, which Kenney won in a 2-1 split decision, the boxer told Koroma that she wasn’t feeling well. The coach had made up his mind to withdraw her from the tournament. But the next day, Kenney said she was feeling better.
And she climbed back into the ring.
Indeed, Koroma said her championship bout against Cynthia Arellano wasn’t as close, with Kenney winning 3-0 in a more convincing fashion.
“That first fight was the hardest,” Kenney said in a phone interview after winning the gold. “But I battled through it. I’m not sure what’s next for me, but I’m going to keep having fun with it.”
Joyce Rawlings, a family friend who has known Kenney since she was 3 years old, said the young boxer has always been a little bit different.
“I’ve watched her grow up and have seen the challenges she’s faced, but she’s always stayed focused,” said Rawlings, who was a parent involvement coordinator for the Head Start program when Kenney attended. “She never let outside distractions get to her. When people talk about how it takes a village, this young lady has been a part of that village.”
Also along for the trip to Alabama was Alexandria Boxing Club’s Troy Isley, who won a national Police Athletic League title in the fall. He lost over the weekend, fighting in the boys featherweight division, in a 3-0 decision that Koroma called controversial.
“But he stayed in there and supported his teammate in Iesha and pushed her,” Koroma said.
By competing at the Junior Olympics, both boxers performed on a stage that’s essentially considered a talent pipeline for the Olympics. Among those in attendance in Mobile, Ala., was Pedro Roque, the new international boxing coach for USA Boxing.
The former Cuban Olympic coach told the Mobile Press-Register that competitors at the Junior Olympics would be the core of the U.S. boxing team for the 2020 Olympics, though he said he wasn’t writing off the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, either.
“These kids have so much talent,” Roque said.
Kenney’s success in the ring is bringing more recognition outside of it, including a presentation congratulating her at a city council meeting after her international tournament win.
But Koroma said he doesn’t have to worry about keeping Kenney grounded with the increasing attention she’s receiving from boxing circles and her hometown.
“She’s a level-headed kid,” he said. “The whole time we were out there, she’s reading books. She’s in the bleachers reading, and when it’s time to fight, she puts on her gear, fights, says thanks to everybody and goes right back to her books.”