Rashida Ellis has her eyes fixed on the Olympic flame, but not the one currently aglow in Sochi. Ellis, 18, a senior at Lynn English High School, is part of a family boxing franchise that has sent her two brothers on to the professional ranks and her mother into a state of guarded, growing optimism.
“I was skeptical, scared at first,’’ said Beverly Ellis, recalling when her daughter first climbed into the ring, gloved hands raised in sweet science in 2006. “I didn’t want her beautiful face swollen. But she’s a tough girl.’’
Tough and determined and devoted. Ellis, who works out six nights a week, 3-4 hours each evening at the Somerville Boxing Club under the tutelage of trainer Alex Rivera, is aiming to be one of the three USA women who fight at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. She’s convinced she’ll make it, as is Rivera, although the favorite at the moment is Queen Underwood, who just last month edged Ellis in a semifinal bout at the national championships outside Spokane, Wash.
“I thought I won,’’ said Ellis, noting she battled that day to a draw, one that went Underwood’s way when a fifth judge had to be polled as the tiebreaker. “So I guess I’ll just have to try harder — just knock her out next time.’’
With that as inspiration, the 5-foot-3-inch Ellis isn’t watching what’s happening a world a way at the edge of the Black Sea to get her more deeply engaged in her Olympic dream. If she’s not in school, she’s in the gym, usually from 6-9 p.m. on weekdays, followed by a midday dose of another 3-4 hours each Saturday.
Sunday is for resting, she said, including another 3-4 hours worshiping with friends and family at the Greater Bethlehem Temple Pentecostal Church in West Lynn, where her father, Ronald Ellis, is a deacon.
“It seems like what I pray for . . . ,’’ said Ellis, asked how boxing and worship tie together in her life, “ . . . what I ask for . . . I get it.’’
Every two years, the Olympics traditionally bring out the dreamers. It was slightly different for Ellis, whose two brothers, Ronald and Rashidi, first sparked her interest by bringing her along to Rivera’s gym when they took up the sport. But typically it’s the broadcast of the Games that brings new recruits streaming to the gyms, rinks, slopes, and tracks, to all the fields and assorted venues across the world, wide-eyed kids thinking they can take up a new sport, scale the podium, wear the medal, hold the flowers, hear their anthem.
“We call it the Olympic bump,’’ said Tod Shannon, treasurer of the Bay State Speedskating Club, where last week inquiries predictably spiked amid the Games. “It’s really been the last two weeks. I’ve been doing this eight years, and normally we’ll get 1-2 inquiries a month. Now, because of the Games, it’s 5-10 a day. By the time it’s over, we’ll probably have as many as 200 come out and try it for the first time.’’
For those interested, Bay State Speedskating holds short-track primers for walk-ons in Walpole (Iorio Rink) and Bedford (The Edge). The fee is $25. For more information, visit www.speedskaters.org/bssc or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I love the snow, but I’m not really watching the Olympics right now,’’ said Ellis. “I just like physical sports — boxing, football, basketball — stuff like that.’’
Prior to taking up boxing, Ellis played two years of Pop Warner football.
“Running back . . . only girl on the team,’’ she recalled. “And I scored a lot of touchdowns.’’
The New England Golden Glove Championships are coming up in Lowell, Feb. 25-26. Ellis won’t be there, she said, because she has beaten everyone in the region at her weight (132 pounds).
“I can’t get anyone to fight me,’’ she lamented. “They know what’s going to happen to them.’’
Al Valenti, longtime New England boxing promoter and general ring aficionado, believes Ellis is “the real deal,’’ a legit contender for the 2016 US Olympic squad. But he also knows that boxing, amateur and pro, comes with no guarantees, except to be punched in the face. The 1-2 combination of injury and politics often has a way of taking down the most competent and qualified of the field.
“And Queen’s the real deal, too,’’ noted Valenti, referring to Underwood, who is some 14 years Ellis’s senior. “She’s a tiger. It will probably come down to those two — and the winner goes to Rio.’’
If so, says Rivera, his fighter will be ready. He believes Ellis, though the better combatant that day, was slow to get her game going in the match against Underwood last month. To avoid a repeat next January, when the same national championships could determine who ultimately lands in Rio, he has Rivera locked into her six-day-a-week commitment. Her training could even expand some after she graduates from high school this spring.
“She moves like no one else . . . like she’s dancing to a good song,’’ said a proud Rivera. “She knows she can do it. If she’s in shape — and I’ll make sure she is — no one is going to beat that girl.’’
Ellis is a five-time national champion, three of those in the junior Olympic ranks, another earned in the Police Athletic League, and another in the Golden Gloves. All the world’s attention right now is on the tournament of Five Rings in Russia, but for Ellis it is all about that one ring in Rio.
“My mom thought this was just a guy’s sport,’’ said Ellis, thinking back to those first days in the ring. “She thought it was too tough for me, so I had to prove her wrong. ‘If you get beat up, it’s your fault!’ she said. Well, it never happened.’’