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School boxing program teaches 'resiliency, discipline, hard work'

Program sponsored by 94 Forward legacy fund
Jamaican Olympic boxer Ricardo Brown, right, helps instruct at a new boxing program introducing the sport to kids from School District 61 at Island Boxing in Victoria. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

School District 61 superintendent Deb Whitten, as an Olympian, knows the value of sport on many different levels.

The school district is part of a pilot project involving ­boxing and recent-immigrant high school students, who have been coming twice a week to learn the Sweet Science at Island ­Boxing on Fisgard Street. Sponsoring the program is 94 Forward, the legacy fund from the 1994 ­Victoria Commonwealth Games, which assists a number of ­sporting initiatives in the region from grassroots up to national teams.

Whitten was a national-champion field hockey goaltender for the University of Victoria Vikes, who won silver and bronze medals in the 1991 and 1995 Pan Am Games, and represented Canada in the 1992 Barcelona ­Olympics. Boxing might seem out of her element but there are ­commonalities across sports that all athletes understand ­regarding preparation, focus and commitment.

“The program has been ­fantastic,” said Whitten.

“There is a universal piece to this regarding student opportunities. There’s an important connection of belonging through physical exercise.”

Newcomer students were targeted for the program. At the welcome centre at the school district offices, they were asked which sports they were most interested in.

“Boxing came up lot,” said David Hovis, district principal at the school board office.

Twenty students are part of the initial fall intake in the ­program.

“It is safe and structured,” said Whitten.

“There is expert coaching from high-level athletes.”

Among the instructors in the program at Island Boxing gym over the fall have been ­Olympian Ricardo Brown and Canadian champion and pro Melinda Watpool.

“It is bigger than boxing,” said Jason Heit, owner and instructor at Island Boxing.

“These kids all have different backgrounds, religions and languages. What matters is that the kids have fun breaking barriers. It’s been rewarding to teach this and helping create healthy lifestyles.”

Former national team Pan Am Games boxer Heit, with a wide breadth of experience in amateur and pro boxing, said he believes this has been the first school-sanctioned boxing program in Victoria since the 1940s.

The pilot program will be revaluated after the upcoming school break.

“We will have ­conversations going forward with our ­partners,” said Hovis.

The 94 Forward funding ­program is best known for supporting elite-level athletes on the Island training for the Olympics, World Cups and world championships. It is now expanding into grassroots school programs as well.

“Where a lot of these students come from, boxing is popular,” said John MacMillan, president of 94 Forward.

“It teaches resiliency, ­discipline, hard work and is character building. It is a pilot project and we will evaluate it and see what we do with it in the New Year.”

Also sponsored by 94 Forward this fall has been a diving program at Saanich Commonwealth Place, in conjunction with School District 61 and Boardworks, for more than 200 Grade 2 elementary school students.