A journey of a thousand punches — in a warehouse-turned-boxing-gym “straight out of Rocky” — is transforming Schenectady students into Undisputed Champions.
These young adults, ages 17 to 21, have rolled with life’s punches for years, navigating the challenges of autism spectrum disorders, neurological impairments, and complex learning disabilities. They’re enrolled at the Wildwood School, where they learn academic, social, employment, and functional skills based on their Individual Educational Plans (IEP).
And by participating in Wildwood’s gym elective — Undisputed Champions — they’re improving their self-confidence, physical strength, coordination, balance, and belief in themselves.
“We push them to do things they’ve never done before, and that’s changing their lives in a positive way,” says Javy Martinez, the lead boxing trainer for the program (and a Colonie Police Department officer) at Schott’s Boxing Club in Albany, where the weekly class meets. “We challenge them to meet goals and then set new ones. We celebrate every time they surpass the bar.”
Tom Schreck (below), Wildwood Programs director of communications, spearheaded the program’s inception when he approached gym owner Andy Schott, his long-time friend and boxing coach. Together with Martinez, they custom designed and launched Undisputed Champions in 2012 to meet the special needs of those with disabilities.
“Between 15 and 18 young men and women with varying abilities participate in the eight-week class,” said Schreck, a licensed professional boxing judge (and a contributing writer for Westchester Magazine). For an hour on Wednesdays students warm up, listen to a short motivational talk, run laps, practice punching drills, and work the heavy bag.
“It’s fitness training and boxing technique without sparring contact,” says Schott, a Hudson Valley Community College associate professor.
Volunteer coaches from the community — including a construction worker, a dad whose toddler successfully battled leukemia last year, and 50-something-year-old men and women with Parkinson’s disease — work one-on-one with the students.
Mark Burek, founder of Hope Soars, an organization dedicated to Parkinson’s research, education, and helping those who are afflicted to live full lives, contacted Schott and his business partner Kyle Provenzano last year about offering a boxing class for those fighting Parkinson’s.
“There’s proven evidence that exercise delays progression of Parkinson’s,” said Burek, adding that “boxing training benefits fine motor skills and cognition.” Burek has battled the degenerative neurological disease since 2007.
Volunteering as a coach with Undisputed Champions, which his organization helps sponsor, keeps his spirits up, he said.
“On days when I’m feeling down, helping the kids helps me focus on others and that boosts my outlook. I’m helping them, they’re helping me. It’s reciprocal and therapeutic and I’m very grateful,” said Burek.
Undisputed Champions, offered during fall and spring semesters, ends with a boxing showcase attended by parents and the community. To earn the Undisputed Champion title, students must throw 1,000 punches — in sets of 100 aimed at their coaches who wear protective belly guards — in less than 10 minutes.
Tracie Killar — whose 20-year-old son, Jude, successfully completed the challenge and joined Schott’s gym — says the class benefited him physically, socially, and mentally. He has Down syndrome, mild depression, and anxiety. Undisputed Champions “helped Jude go from a teenager to a young man, becoming healthier in every way.”
“He’s treated like an athlete and young man, not someone with a disability. The coaches’ expectations are high and he rises to meet them,” said Killar, founder of South End Children’s Cafe, which provides free dinners to children and parents in need.
Children with disabilities often lack ample “social opportunities with their typically-developing peers,” she said, “but when my son is here at the gym, it’s just a bunch of guys boxing. That’s a beautiful thing.”