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Air Force Academy adds women's boxing to keep up with new gender equality rules in combat roles

October 1, 2016 Updated: October 1, 2016 at 10:06 am
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photo - Air Force Academy cadet Sam Gaumer, right, throws a punch at fellow female cadet Tia Massa during a short bout at the end of a boxing class at the Academy Friday, September 23, 2016. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
Air Force Academy cadet Sam Gaumer, right, throws a punch at fellow female cadet Tia Massa during a short bout at the end of a boxing class at the Academy Friday, September 23, 2016. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

Since the Air Force Academy opened in 1955, all male cadets have entered knowing they'd face flying fists in the required freshman boxing class.

Now, the women follow that path.

"I had never taken a punch to the face before, so it was definitely a new experience," said freshman Rory Robertson, who was part of the first wave of women to complete the 10-hour course early this semester.

Women had previously taken Introduction to Combatives instead of boxing but then took Combatives I and II along with their male counterparts.

In integrating women into the boxing class, the full curriculum for both sexes became identical at the academy. This change was made to reflect the Department of Defense's decision to fully integrate women into combat roles in January.

"It makes sense that the academy provides our female cadets the same boxing and combative training we provide our male cadets," Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson said.

The U.S. Military Academy has also added women's boxing as a required physical education class this year. The Naval Academy started in the spring of 1996.

Air Force Academy cadet Sam Gaumer, right, spars with fellow female cadet Kirsten Linz during a boxing class at the Academy Friday, September 23, 2016. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

The academy doesn't necessarily expect all of its graduates to find themselves in hand-to-hand combat, but they could well encounter high-stress situations under fire or in other circumstances. Boxing helps prepare for that.

"You can train your neurotransmitters so they respond in a certain way and communicate more clearly," said Air Force boxing coach Blake Baldi, who instructs the classes. "That's really what we're trying to do. The first time they get in there, everything can get a little messy; just very nervous and anxious and not thinking clearly. The more time they spend in there in those highly anxious moments, the more comfortable and confident they become in themselves."

Combatives coordinator Dave Durnil said boxing class emphasizes a need to willingly engage an opponent, which doesn't always come naturally for cadets who were raised to be good students.

"You don't want them to have this experience outside of this environment be their first," physical education director Scott Nelson said. "We put them in a controlled environment where we can mitigate risk but still keep it realistic. Obviously if there's zero risk, it's not as effective."

The academy looked closely at injury dangers when creating the class. It ultimately found that injuries occur more frequently in intramural basketball than boxing. The Navy has had success in limiting concussions in its boxing class, so the Air Force has switched to gloves with the same weight distribution as those used in Annapolis, Md. Further, Air Force has its cadets wrap their hands before putting on the 16-ounce gloves, a move it says reduces the force of impact even more.

All cadets are screened to provide a baseline for concussion testing.

On the day The Gazette was invited to observe the class, there wasn't even so much as a bloody lip suffered as the intense, actual boxing was limited to a 30-second round in the ring. The rest of the class was spent hitting the bag, practicing technique and working on defense.

But, of course, injuries do happen. Senior reserve quarterback Pate Davis missed spring practice as a freshman after suffering a tear in the backside of his throwing shoulder in boxing class. Starting point guard Trevor Lyons saw his basketball work over the summer cut short when he separated his thumb from his hand while throwing a punch in the ring in the spring of 2015.

The instructors attack those fears immediately by introducing blows to the face during the second class.

"In the beginning, I was pretty fearful that I would get hurt," Robertson said. "I learned all the defense skills so I was able to protect myself, and that fear went away."

Athletic Director Jim Knowlton, who oversees the physical education department, brought Johnson to one of the early boxing classes that included women and said the feedback they received was positive.

"Every woman we talked to said it's been incredible," said Knowlton, who took boxing at West Point but said as a hockey player it did not mark his introduction to sparring. "The course, what they've learned, the matches - they loved it."

The boxing class is held over eight one-hour, 15-minute sessions before the participants rotate to a different PE class and another group replaces them. The classes are spaced every other day to give time for recovery but keep the cadets as immersed as possible. Men and women attend the same class, but they remain separate when it comes to drills and bouts. The participants are paired based on their weights.

The class is separate from the intercollegiate boxing team but has often served as the entry point into intramural boxing that feeds the competitive team.

Women in the past - including two last year - have joined the intercollegiate team after voluntarily trying the sport in intramurals. The difference now is that everyone is required to be exposed to boxing through the class.

"We don't want to make every cadet a boxer," Durnil said. "But we want them all to box."

Baldi, a 2005 Air Force graduate who spent time with USA Boxing before returning as Falcons coach, said the transition into boxing has been smooth for the women and many have thanked him for what they called a rewarding experience.

"It's not much different than the men," Baldi said. "There are ones that are very nervous when they get in that first time, very apprehensive about both taking a punch and landing a punch. By the time they get through it, I think they are appreciative of what the course has taught them to handle in a completely new environment. It think it's a positive thing for them."

Added Knowlton, "We want every single one of our graduates to have all of the tools and the warrior ethos to be successful in our Air Force. This is just one of those that is helping to prepare our leaders of character."

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