Four years after USA Boxing hit a new low in Beijing, a revitalized American team is ready to punch back.
With a cool mix of veteran leadership and rising contenders of both sexes, the Americans will field the largest squad at the London Olympics. Nine men qualified in 10 weight classes, while women qualified in all three weights for their first Olympic boxing tournament.
Yet those cold numbers don't reflect the fundamental differences between the squabbling Beijing squad that managed just one bronze medal and the cohesive, supportive unit that went through a team workout Thursday at a Leyton gym on the eve of the games.
"That's all because we're really a team now," flyweight Rau'shee Warren said. "It's all different than it was before."
Warren, the first three-time U.S. Olympic boxer, believes the Americans have unlocked the secret of teamwork in a fundamentally individual sport. After playing his own role in the Americans' declining medal count at the past two Olympics, he's confident this team's camaraderie will be reflected on the only scoreboard that matters.
"The last team in Beijing, everybody had their little group that they were hanging with," Warren said after swiping a drink from lightweight Queen Underwood after the workout. "This team, we all hang out together, and we don't forget to have fun any more. We all push each other, and we all love the fact we're all here for the same reason. We're here to represent our country, not just ourselves. We're all here for medals."
Warren is a team captain, but so is light welterweight Jamel Herring, the U.S. Marine who smiled as he barked out commands during a calisthenics workout Thursday. He gave way to Underwood, who led her 11 fellow Olympians through stretching.
The Americans' collegial vibe is a stark departure from the tumult and dissent that overwhelmed the Beijing team, which emerged with only Deontay Wilder's bronze medal. Coach Dan Campbell kept that team in an ambitious yearlong residency program in Colorado Springs, but several fighters chafed under those restrictions and the marginalization of their personal coaches, resulting in a team that openly defied Campbell's instructions inside and outside the ring.
The new Americans seem to like their coaches, and they definitely like each other. They go on team outings, support each other during every training exercise — and several fighters are obsessive tweeters who spend large portions of their down time poking, teasing and encouraging each other on social networking sites.
"It's totally different from any other Olympic team I've been a part of," said Basheer Abdullah, the Americans' veteran Olympic coach. "We're seeing a unified team with a lot of cohesion. We win and lose together. I give tribute to the athletes and their character. There's no undermining, nobody thinking they know better. The camaraderie is amazing. You see it on a day-to-day basis, and that's a big achievement already."
Michael Hunter won the U.S. team trials four years ago as a super heavyweight, but failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. He moved down to heavyweight after deciding to stick with the amateur game, and is emphatic about the role played by the new team in his qualification for London.
"Some of those guys from four years ago are still my brothers, but it wasn't the whole team experience that time," Hunter said. "This team just has a different aura. You already saw it qualifying in Brazil. We helped each other get those wins. We couldn't have done it without the whole team. I've got all these brothers now, and I've got three sisters, too."
The Americans' teamwork is even more remarkable considering they had to skirt the turmoil that has followed around USA Boxing for the better part of the last decade. Most of the fighters weren't sure they would go to London until less than two months ago — and the U.S. team didn't even have a coaching staff until late June.
After yet another overhaul of the organization's entire leadership structure and coaching staff, executive director Anthony Bartkowski has found a formula that creates harmony and focuses his athletes — although he won't call it a success until he sees results in the medal count.
"There were plenty of obstacles in our way leading to where we're at today, but I feel strongly we've overcome it," Bartkowski said while watching the workout. "We made the right changes, and now we just need to get out there. ... It had to be different. (Beijing) was our worst performance ever. We all had to look at it and research it, and understand what happened in the past."
Hunter is one of six Americans who didn't qualify for the Olympics until mid-May. Their relatively poor performances in early qualification prompted the departure of head coach Joe Zanders, and the job remained open until Abdullah was formally rehired four weeks ago, even though he isn't allowed to corner his fighters during bouts because he has coached pro boxers in the past.
The relatively minor impact of that late hire is reflected in USA Boxing's about-face to include much more input from fighters' personal coaches. Happy boxers are usually better boxers, and Bartkowski thinks the fighters' hometown instruction has been uniformly solid.
Another secret to this team's cohesion might be its coed nature. While some nations have kept their first Olympic women's boxing teams separate from the men, the Americans put everyone together in most of their recent activities, including their training camp up north in Bolton.
The U.S. women say they're treated as equals and peers who do the same drills and exercises as the men — but maybe do them a bit more precisely under Underwood's watchful eye.
"I've been a leader on the women's team for a long time, so it's nothing new," Underwood said. "The guys have known me a while, too, so I don't think it's anything different for them. I feel like I've had leadership ability for a long time. I don't let anybody slack off. We know we all have to come together, men and women, young and old. That's the only way we've got a shot to all come home with medals."