By Marilyn Livingston
Special to The Sun
I confess my blood went cold when Matie first told me, over the phone, that she wanted to box.
It was 2007 and she and her husband Dave were living in Leesburg, Va. Their son Jack was only a few months old. What could I say to my 32-year-old ex-basketball queen, now hundreds of miles from her birthplace here in Truro, Nova Scotia, except a grudging mumble of encouragement.
Inwardly, I was smarting from the nagging suspicion that I had brought it all on myself; that raising three daughters in a feminist household had suddenly come back to punch me in the nose -- so to speak.
Dave and Matie met while they were both undergraduates at Norwich University in Vermont. He studied engineering and played hockey. Matie, a biology major, played for the Norwich basketball and rugby teams. It was not a big reach then when, married and settled into their first home in Leesburg, she told him she wanted to join a local boxing club.
That was where she fell in love with the sport. Dave was very supportive, looking after Jack, but it wasn't easy for either of them, being new parents. Matie's sympathetic coach targeted Matie and three others for extra lessons in sparring. "He treated me like a person, not just a girl -- that was the key," she says. "Sparring with my coach allowed me to release so much negative energy."
By Christmas 2007, Dave had accepted a new position in Nashua, N.H.
Visiting the Boott Mill Museum, we were given a glimpse into the lives of the Yankee mill girls, those early handmaidens of the American industrial revolution who toiled up to 14 hours a day for less than three dollars a week in order to feed an insatiable demand for cotton. Yet far from feeling discouraged or downtrodden, these hardy refugees from the country felt empowered by their newly-acquired economic independence and a chance, at last, to make good in the world.
Arriving at the West End Gym, I am startled to discover that it is a near replica of the mill we just visited. It is an elongated, red brick shell of a place, a wounded dinosaur where pigeons peck through broken windows along its backside. My husband takes a turn wheeling Jack around the parking lot while Matie, Dave and I climb two outside sets of creaky stairs to a door that opens into the wide belly of the beast.
Inside, a red glow leaps out of the dusky interior. It is the padded floor of the ring; a place where blood might be shed -- my daughter's blood. I steady my nerves by forcing myself to look around. The ceiling is high and vaulted with ancient rafters gazing down on what seems to be a random scattering of equipment. Some of the walls are lined with collages of pictures, promotions and inspirational posters. "The more you sweat, the less you bleed," blares out one of them.
A man of medium height and build who might be in his mid 70's approaches and introduces himself as Art Ramalho, owner of the gym. The half-smile on his face belies an intensity well-hidden under a fatherly exterior. I do not know I've just met the "godfather" of boxing in Lowell. We tell him that we are from Canada visiting our daughter in Nashua; that she wants to continue the training begun in Virginia.
There is no small talk, no idle questioning beyond the immediate: "How tall are you?" (5-10) "How much do you weigh?" (147) "Could you be ready in two months?" Ready for what?
The following year, I come to know more about this man I've entrusted my daughter to. I learn that he has committed all his working life to turning around the lives of troubled youth in Lowell.
"Building boys is better than mending men," he has said -- a sentiment now applicable to the many young girls he has taken in over the past several years. In fact, hundreds of kids referred by the local police department have discovered a new confidence, discipline and self respect thanks to the tireless work of Arthur Ramalho
February, 2009, Lowell Memorial Auditorium. Matie posts a solid win in a championship runoff toward the New England final, beating Sonya Rodriguez, a girl who had beaten her in an earlier exhibition match.
"Jackie (her coach) was so happy," she says. "I gave him a big hug and kiss in front of the crowd of 2,000 spectators."
Jackie O'Neill, himself a former protégé of Ramalho, has worked at the West End Gym for 15 years. "Matie was one of the hardest working boxers male or female I've ever had the pleasure to train," he says. "And tough. She could take a hit to the body and give as good as she got."
Matie went on to win the New England Novice championship that year in a tightly-contested match. "I would have been disappointed if I had lost," she says, "not because of the loss itself, but because of my sub-par performance. Physically and mentally, I just wasn't as strong as I was in the previous match."
Soon after her win at the 2009 Gloves, Matie became pregnant with Gabriella, now four. Finding the lengthy commute to Lowell a bit taxing, she joined a gym closer to Nashua where she took an advanced class in strategic sparring for about a year. These days she is attending boot camp classes at the YMCA to stay in shape and will be participating in another triathlon in June.
"I would love to train again," she says. "If a boxing club opened up in Nashua, I would be the first to join. The problem is these places tend to be quite expensive. That's one of the things that is so great about the West End Gym. Mr. Ramalho keeps the cost down so young kids can go. My kudos to that gym and all that they do."
I think again of that old mill building with a sense of reverence for all the lives it has touched, past and present. In my mind's ear I can almost detect a persistent hum of hundreds of machines over the din of hip-hop and the rag tag noises of shouting and punching. They are weaving a timeless story; a story about second chances, beating the odds, sweating it out -- being the best you can be. The West End Gym is a living parable about all that is good about boxing.
Marilyn Livingston is a writer and mother of three daughters. She lives in Truro, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org