Coram boxer's gut-wrenching road to Olympics
Boxing, by definition, is struggle.
But the road that Coram's Jamel Herring has taken to the London Olympics brought him to depths experienced by few other amateur boxers. When the light welterweight's opponents were learning to duck punches, he was pulling two tours of duty in Iraq with his Marine unit in 2005 and 2007, trying to avoid roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades.
While fighting for survival in Iraq, boxing was little more than a dream to Marine Sgt. Herring, something he did as a kid but not necessarily his calling. And just when he found his way back to the gym with the Marine team in 2008 and believed he was out of harm's way, fate blindsided Herring with the death of his 2-month-old daughter, Ariyanah, from sudden infant death syndrome on July 27, 2009.
It's a date that resonates to the core for Herring because the third anniversary of his daughter's death coincides with the opening ceremony in London.
"Every time I get in the ring, I look up in the sky and put my fist up and acknowledge every fight is for her," said Herring, 26, who is divorced and also has two sons -- Stephen, 5, and Jamel Jr., 2. "I've dealt with it better than most would think. It made me stronger as a person.
"People told me to take a break and mourn and spend time with my family. But boxing is what kept me going . . . When I'm in the gym, I feel like me. I'm natural. Boxing has helped with a lot of life problems I have."
As he spoke during a visit home to Long Island, Herring was sitting on the apron of the ring at Veterans Memorial Boxing Club in Shirley. His two former youth coaches, Austin Hendrickson and Mike Murphy, listened as he recounted a journey that began late at age 15. Pointing to a spot by a heavy bag and a mirror, Herring said that was where he first practiced throwing jabs under the supervision of Hendrickson, father of his best friend, Ashante.
"I used to complain to him all the time, 'Hey, coach, let's work on something different,' " Herring said with a smile. "But I knew everything had a purpose, so, I stuck to it."
A boxing ring is a dangerous place, but ultimately, it would become Herring's safe haven. He had no way of knowing that in 2003 when he enlisted in the Marines, seeking a career path. "I was in New York when 9/11 happened," he said. "That was a great impact on my life."
On the battlefield
As a field electrician, he deployed with his unit from the 8th Engineer Support Battalion, 2nd Marine Logistics Group in 2005 to Fallujah, a hot spot beset by insurgents. "It was scary because there still was heavy combat all over the whole country,'' Herring said. "I got through it because we had a good unit. But I lost a couple of Marines I knew personally, so it was hard."
He returned to Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 2006 and briefly got into the Marine boxing program, but then he deployed again in 2007 to Al Taqaddum.
"I saw two or three roadside bombings on that tour," Herring said. "I knew a sergeant who lost his life. He had a 2-week-old newborn. It hit me hard because I was on my way to becoming a father with my first son."
Herring's mother, Jeanine, 44, who still lives in Coram, could see the war had affected the oldest of her five children deeply. "When he first came home, you could see a change in Jamel's personality," she said. "But he really didn't get into too much detail about it. I wouldn't question him too much because I saw it did disturb him."
Upon returning from Iraq in 2008, Herring rejoined the Marine boxing team at Camp Lejeune. But whatever hopes grew within Herring after his return to the ring were shattered the night he and his then wife discovered Ariyanah lifeless in her crib.
"I remember him calling me in the middle of the night screaming that his daughter was not breathing; he thinks she's dead," Jeanine Herring said. "That was hard. He kept it together when we were there for the funeral until the very end, when he broke down in my arms. It hurt him so much.
"I think he shut down . . . He said he just wanted to give it [boxing] up and move on in his career in the military or get out."
It was a few months before Herring could return to the gym, but he began to enjoy some success in military tournaments. In 2010, former U.S. Olympic boxing coach Jesse Ravelo took charge of the Marine boxing team, and that's when Herring's career began in earnest.
As a veteran himself and former coach of the Army boxers, Ravelo was familiar with the stresses faced by military personnel. He saw Herring had talent, but before he could develop it, Ravelo felt it was necessary to confront Herring's problems outside the ring. Ravelo declined to discuss those troubles, but he said combat experience and his daughter's death were only part of it.
"He had problems that were messing with his mind . . . that was the first thing we dealt with,'' Ravelo said. "We discussed that boxing and his problems do not mix. He cleared his mind by boxing and training. I'm very proud of him. He's a new man."
Herring made quick strides, capturing a silver medal at the World Military Games in 2010 and winning the first of his two Armed Forces Championships in 2011. But confidence was a problem, and he beat himself up after losing to Chicago's Semajay Thomas in a referee-stopped contest at the 2011 USA Boxing Nationals.
"It was my most crushing defeat," Herring said. "I felt like I got embarrassed. It came back to the whole lack of confidence."
Ravelo talked Herring into competing in the Olympic Trials in 2011, and he won the national title. But in his first match at the 2011 AIBA World Championships in Azerbaijan, Herring was overwhelmed by China's Hu Qing, 20-5. The loss meant Herring would have to win the USA Boxing Nationals in 2012 to have a shot at London.
"I didn't know if I wanted to do amateur boxing anymore," Herring said. "I thought I'd get out of the Marine Corps and just go to the next level. Jesse Ravelo talked me into giving it another shot."
Herring won the USA National title in March, but still had to finish in the top five at the Americas Qualifier in Rio de Janeiro to earn his spot on the Olympic team. He won the bronze medal.
"I watched it on the Internet, and I knew he won before he called me," Herring's mother said. "I was so emotional crying because I was so happy for him."
As the Olympic Games approach, Herring is full of pride over his accomplishment.
"I'm excited," he said. "I made history as the first Marine in 20 years since Sergio Reyes on the 1992 Olympic team. Plus, Howard Davis Jr. was the last boxer from Long Island to make the Olympics in 1976. I just wanted to prove Long Island still has some great talent. I want to get out there and represent where I came from."