lessons from the left hook

The big news around here is that I’ve started occasionally throwing my left hook while sparring. I found out last week when I was hit by the left hook for the first time that this punch can leave you with your ears ringing and the room spinning. The left hook from an opponent comes at the right side of your head, and it comes with the full weight of the body behind it. So I can tell you from experience that after 2 or 3 hits to the head like this…well, the other big news is that I’m learning to duck.

I’ve been learning a ton from sparring with a much more experienced boxer. Well, truthfully, I’m learning mostly how not to die in the ring. But I guess that’s a useful tool for the old toolbox. I both hate sparring with this girl and love it simultaneously. It shows me what boxing can be—the power, control, and presence I could have some day. At the same time, I feel completely helpless against her. It doesn’t seem to matter what I do—how hard I try to hit her, how fast I move, I just get smacked back against the ropes like it’s nothing. I imagine it would be pretty comical if I wasn’t the one getting knocked around…sort of like a Chihuahua duking it out with a bullmastiff. You know it can’t end well for the Chihuahua. To make matters worse, I realize that she’s using her gentle “try-not-to-kill-the-newbie” punches.

My trainer seems to feel the need to explain why we’re working so hard and why he keeps putting me up against a more experienced boxer who punishes me every time. He keeps telling me that this will pay off, and when I meet my opponent in the ring, I’ll have no trouble because I’ve been hit way harder by my friends at the gym. “It will all be worth it,” he says.

The thing is, it’s already worth it. If you actually think I’m going to put myself through 3 months of grueling training at 7 in the morning just to make a 10-minute fight seem a little easier, you are dead wrong. You way overestimate my dedication. In fact, that fight is far from the forefront of my mind right now. I’m training hard because I love it. Every part of it—the challenge, the work, the pain, and the thrill of success. I’m training like a fighter because I want to be a fighter. I would be pushing myself this hard with or without a fight looming at the end.

For anyone who knows me well, my signing up for Haymakers should come as no surprise to you. It’s certainly not the first crazy thing I’ve attempted. I don’t know if it was the way my parents encouraged me to pursue whatever ludicrous dream I came up with when I was little, or how playing the harp for so long taught me that even if something seems impossibly difficult when you first see it, if you take it measure by measure, bite by bite, you can master it. But something gave me this idea that I can do just about anything if I put my mind to it. It was this mindset that led me to believe that it was totally feasible to pursue an advanced degree in science without ever having taken a real biology course. It is why I believed I could be a great musician. And it is the reason I believed I could run a marathon. I look back on some of the things I’ve done and realize how absurd it was that I thought I could do them. I’m actually 97% sure that Harvard only let me into this PhD program because they thought, upon reading my application, “well, she’s got balls…or something. Let’s see what happens when we let her try.” Well, Harvard, if you were betting I wouldn’t make it through the first round, you were wrong. Year four, baby, and I’m still standing. I showed you.

True, if I had to do it all again, I might not choose the most difficult path. But despite the odds, I did those things, and that crazy, winding path full of ups and downs has made me who I am today. And…it is why I think I can go from never having sparred before to my first fight in three months. And win. It’s why I believe I can be a good boxer—maybe someday as good as the ones I sparred with this morning.

I should clarify that there have been plenty of times when I’ve been wrong. In fifth grade, when a friend’s mom died of cancer, I believed I could find the cure myself, and I set out to do so by reading picture books about children with leukemia. When I had a crush on a certain Ukrainian Olympic gymnast, I attempted to learn Ukranian from library books so that when I would meet her at long last, I would be able talk to her. Today, I remember that the word for pajamas begins with a “p-i-“ or something like that. So sadly, if I ever run into Lilia, I may be at a loss for words.  I’ve learned since then to set more reasonable and, perhaps, practical goals for myself. Still, although I gave it my all, I have yet to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

But it’s OK when I fail because I don’t do anything for the end product really. When I wanted to learn Ukranian, although I had the goal in mind of wooing my Ukrainian gymnast, I truly struggled through “hello,” “thank you,” “good bye,” and, apparently, “pajamas” in Ukrainian because I love language. I read about children with leukemia because I care about kids with leukemia. When I set out to run a marathon, I didn’t do it so I could say I’d run a marathon. I did it because I love running. I looked forward to those Saturday morning 3-hour runs even though there were days when every step seemed like an insurmountable obstacle, and I had to count each one simply to keep myself going (just try counting your steps for 16 miles…let me tell you, it’s a whole lot of steps). I wanted to see what my body could do. I pushed it and pushed it, and I loved the feeling of getting stronger and faster. And in the end, my body did what I wanted it to, albeit not as fast as I’d hoped. As I’m plugging away at my PhD, I’m not thinking about holding up that piece of paper covered in Latin scrawl. I mean yes, I’m hoping to finish someday and put my PhD to use, but in the midst of the battle (if you’ve ever gone up against science, you know it is a battle), I’m trying to become a better scientist, and even more than that, a better thinker. As I’m starting out my fourth year of graduate school 0 for 312 (give or take), I’m just trying to soak up everything I can. I’m trying to learn everything there is to learn because I can be sure that something here will come in handy when I find the next dream to chase and mountain to climb.

So that’s why I got up at 5:45 this morning to go sweat out 5 lbs of water for two hours as I push my body further than it’s been pushed before. That’s why I got into the ring (with a little fear and trembling) knowing I could not win. That’s why I got back in the ring again after being beaten down again and again. And that’s why I’ll get up tomorrow and start over again. Because if I’ve taken one thing from my 30 years of back routes and trail blazing, it’s that when you’re given the chance to dive into something you love and learn from some of the best, you take it, balls out, and you question your sanity later.


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