Inside a little house on Omaha Street, not far from the border of Washington DC, a father still clutches his Olympic dream. Gary Russell is a boxing man who wanted a family of boxing men who would win a pile of Olympic medals.
And so he and his wife Lawan had six sons and he named them all Gary Russell because a great boxer, George Foreman, named his children after himself. Only their middle names distinguished them. Then he trained them to be fighters, coaching them all in the basement of the house on Omaha Street because they were Russells and they didn’t need gyms with rings and punching bags to win. They had each other.
He gave their boxing family a name: “Enigma.” It fit them, he thought. They would be different than everyone else. Nobody was going to figure them out.
Four of those boys did indeed become boxers, each following the lessons their father gave in the basement gym. They had plans to someday win Olympic gold like Sugar Ray Leonard, from just a few miles away, did way back in 1976. Then one by one they marched toward the Olympics and one by one they fell. Gary Jr made the Olympic team in 2008 only to pass out the night before the first weigh-in, forcing him from the Games. Gary Allan, missed his weight at the Olympic trial weigh-ins in 2012. Gary Antonio lost in Olympic qualifying that same year. Gary Sr is sure the politics of USA Boxing got him. The only one left is 20-year-old Antuanne – the one with the quick mind and even faster fists. Last December, he qualified for the Olympics as a light welterweight. On Wednesday he will be the first Gary Russell to fight in an Olympics.
It is this one, the father says, who will fulfill the family dream.
“You are the chosen one,” he tells Antuanne.
Because of these hopes the father is constantly challenging his youngest son. Once, Gary Sr thought he might want to be a priest, but that was before he wanted to be a boxer, which was before the shotgun accident that shattered his knee, which was before life came and kids followed and the spark of an Olympic dream filled his head. He is still a religious man, speaking not in biblical quotes but in life parables. Each of his boxing children, including a son from a previous relationship, Devaun Drayton, who was murdered in 2004, had fallen short of the Olympics through their own misjudgments. The Gary Russells have gone on to other success. Gary Jr is the WBC world featherweight title holder with a 27-1 record, Antonio is 7-0 as a professional and Allan works their corners. But there was always something about the prestige of the Olympics that none until now were able to grasp.
“What are you going to do?” Gary Sr tells Antuanne every day as they train. “Are you going to keep mirroring them? You got to look at it as a ladder. Everybody climbed the ladder already, no one took it beyond that one ladder. Right now you are in a position to take it beyond that one ladder.”
One recent Friday night, not long before he left for Rio, Antuanne stood on the porch wearing a Team USA jacket. For years he never imagined himself an Olympian, he always thought he would turn pro like Little Gary. But as he started moving through the amateur boxing system, winning fights and climbing to the top of rankings, his brothers’ familiar path became his as well.
“When I was out in Azerbaijan [in June for Olympic qualifying] I was listening to some tapes on history,” Antuanne says. “The guy was saying civilization has got to be forced because civilization doesn’t come on its own. It has to be forced. For example Michael Jordan had to quit basketball because he was the best at it. In order for you to grow and reach the top someone or something better has to come along in order for you to learn that something or someone is better than you or nothing ever changes.”
Something was lost the night Gary Jr, known in the family as “Little Gary”, collapsed in China. Little Gary was supposed to be the start of a line of Russell Olympians returned home to Capitol Heights as heroes, recognized on the streets and celebrated in parades. And while Little Gary has made enough money as a pro to buy a handful of rental houses and a family gym a few miles away, they have never quite reached the destiny their father once imagined.
“I told Antuanne, he’s responsible for changing the destiny of the limitations that occur,” Gary Sr said. “A lot of people look at us from outside and say they have accomplished a lot but we are never satisfied with that level of comfort being where they are. With the Olympics he has a chance to change everything. If he achieves past what Gary is, not only will it cement your name, it will etch your name in history. As far as we are concerned it will change the whole dynamic of the whole family.”
As he stood on the steps of the family home looking at the entrance to what was once the basement gym, Antuanne nodded.
“It will change it in a dynasty kind of way,” he said.
Gary Sr was fighting vampires the night Little Gary tumbled out of the Olympics in 2008. He stood with Little Gary and Allan as the vampires appeared, jabbing at them with stakes. Then Little Gary fell to the ground. A vampire bit him. And as he lay there, bleeding from the neck he looked at his father and said: “Are you going to stake me too?”
Then the phone rang.
Gary Sr awoke in a borrowed Beijing apartment and stumbled from one nightmare into another. A coaching friend on the Olympic team was on the line saying something about Little Gary had gone for a late-night run to shed one last pound before the Olympic draw and weigh-in the next morning. He hadn’t had any water and in the heat and smoky air he lost consciousness. He was out for 10 minutes. When doctors arrived they pumped him full of fluids, pushing him well over the weight limit. A few hours later, the team bus left without him. He was out of the Olympics.
Eight years after that phone call, Gary Sr sat on the porch of his house and sighed.
“You never get past that night,” he said “You never get past that, ever.”
Not because Little Gary passed out while trying to make weight but because he didn’t take seriously enough the enemy that Gary Sr has long preached against: politics. No amateur sport may be more rife with factions and favoritism than boxing. He has never believed in the winks and nods through which he sees business being done. The Russells don’t make deals. They don’t play “the game”, as he calls it. His children fight for themselves, trained in their special Russell way. This is why he has never gotten a plush national team coaching assignment and why he has never desired one. He hates the system. He has raised his boys to trust only their skills, trying to bludgeon opponents rather than rely on a judging system he sees as corrupt.
Gary Sr had little use for the 2008 US coach, Dan Campbell, who he knew from boxing tournaments around Washington and Virginia. He pushed Little Gary to stay true to the family training style and bristled when his son was forced to do weight training at a pre-Olympic camp in Colorado where he became too muscle-bound, making it harder to lose that last pound the night before the weigh-in. He still wonders why his son was kept from that morning weigh-in in Beijing since his first fight wasn’t for several days. He is sure Little Gary would have been able to fight. He wants Antuanne to be wary of the shadows his brothers never saw, to steel himself and persevere.
“Because he’s the youngest he’s able to see,” Gary Sr said. “If his brother walked through the door and stepped in dung then he knows not to walk through that door … I think he takes it more seriously.”
Antuanne is probably the most thoughtful of Gary Sr’s sons, an excellent student, adventurous and interested in the world. “He’s a very deep-minded person,” Lawan said. He remembers well when Little Gary came home after Beijing; the drama of the moment and the sadness that followed. He remembers, too, the frustration that came with his other brothers’ attempts at the Olympics. Those visions are still fresh. Their story will not be his.
During the Azerbaijan qualifying one of the judges told him: “Everybody here has a typical style. It’s like on the points system they’re trying to score. You are more pro-ish, you have a pro style.” The judge probably broke rules by doing this. They are not supposed to compliment fighters or in any way show favoritism. But Antuanne took the judge’s comment as a compliment, a sign that the man liked the Russell way, that maybe this Olympics will be his Olympics.
All around him at home the family has changed even as everything has stayed the same. Some of the Gary Russells now have children of their own. Gary Sr has gotten slower as he has grown older. The knee still hurts and years of smoking have worn on his body. His voice is raspier. Sometimes he gets tired. The last of his Gary Russells has come to the last of the family’s Olympics.
On the porch of the house on Omaha Street, Antuanne laughed. He is fighting under the name Gary Russell, just like his brothers. He wonders if anyone will see that name and remember the fighter who passed out the night before the Olympics began.
“Maybe they’ll think it’s the same person,” he said.
Not a final brother trying to complete the family dream.
This article was written by Les Carpenter in Capitol Heights, Maryland, for theguardian.com on Saturday 6th August 2016 11.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010