Boxing gloves hanging on a wall

Punching their hearts out

Two students find fitness and fun through the Penn State Altoona boxing club
By: Marissa Carney

“Coming to college, I was very nervous, and I didn't have a lot of confidence. When I joined the boxing club, I started feeling better about myself and my body and gaining self-esteem.”

Bethany Derbidge could have never pictured herself in a boxing club much less voluntarily waking up at 5:00 a.m. for a workout, yet here she is doing those very things and loving every minute.

In conversation with friend Nicholas Bongiorno, who happens to be president of Penn State Altoona’s boxing club, he encouraged her to stop by some time and give it a try. Eager to experience new things, Derbidge agreed to check it out and was immediately hooked.

Bongiorno has been interested in boxing for much longer but didn’t have the avenues to pursue it until coming to college. Now he is a proud member and leader of the club and eager to share the joys of boxing with others. “The Penn State Altoona boxing club—it’s got a ring to it, you know?”

Gym Rats

Penn State Altoona partners with Scorchin’ Boxing Gym, which offers club members a place to work out, train, and spar. There are both morning and evening hours and classes, and members go as they are able. A typical class includes a group stretch, 10 minutes of jump rope, running laps, arms, core, or leg work, then bag and mitt work, following by ab work. No member has to spar if he or she doesn’t want to.

There are about 10 members in the boxing club, and even though their schedules don’t usually allow them to train all together, they maintain group communication and a nice camaraderie.

Derbidge says the support she gets from the other members has been quite helpful for her, especially when things get tough, like in the morning. Both Derbidge and Bongiorno often attend a 5:00 a.m. class. Derbidge admits it takes a lot to get out of bed but knowing that other members are also coming or remembering their encouragement motivates her. “Through the club, we get to be with people who have the same interests. We can come together as a community to do something that we love, and no one cares what our backgrounds are, what religion we are, or what we look like. It’s really nice.”

Derbidge and Bongiorno appreciate that boxing allows for every body shape, body type, and level of experience. “You can take it at your own pace,” states Bongiorno. “You can ease into it or you can go full force. You can get into it and start really loving what you're doing, and you come out of it with these new skill sets.”

Bongiorno tries to be at as many sessions as possible and loves to see the progress each member makes at his or her own pace. “We're all at our own individual points and all capable of pretty amazing things. Everyone is doing really well, and it's honestly amazing to see. I never thought this passion would affect so many, but I'm starting to realize that now, and it's a wonderful feeling.”

Boxing Bug

Derbidge had no idea what to expect when she went to her first boxing session. She had never given thought to the sport or had any interest in it, rather she was just checking it out for something to do. The first-year nursing student had recently developed an interest in fitness and quickly found out that boxing was a way to achieve wellness goals and maintain mental health. “It's been a great stress reliever for me because the nursing program is really intense. It's also helped me be able to focus more on my schoolwork.”

Derbidge describes it as being bit by the boxing bug—once she started, there was no stopping. “I enjoy doing it a lot, and I think about it a lot. I talk about it all the time, so if you talk to me, I will mention boxing,” she quips.

It was a similar experience for Bongiorno, also a first-year student studying psychology. He, too, hadn’t been much of a fitness buff before he began boxing, but it didn’t take long for that to change. “When I started, there was that enjoyment, and as I progressed, there was also satisfaction because there are all these different things I started to notice over time. Like my hands have gotten faster, I can hear the bag more when I hit it, I can move more, and I realize how far I've come.”

Because boxing isn’t just about going ham on a punching bag; there are different types of punches and defense moves with names to remember. There are rules, combinations, sequences, and speeds. You must be light on your feet and quick with your hands. All of this, along with endurance and strength throughout the entire body, comes with practice and time.

Derbidge and Bongiorno love not just the physicality of boxing, but the mental game that accompanies it. When their bodies are tired, when their muscles are screaming, when their lungs are begging for air, they must dig deep and use sheer willpower to press beyond their physical limitations. And when they do, they leave the gym feeling like they can do anything, that they are forces to be reckoned with.

Building Confidence

“I spent most of high school doing robotics. I started my own Dungeons & Dragons club.” Bongiorno pauses. “If I didn't have boxing club now, I'd probably be holed up in my room playing video games, watching Netflix, and occasionally going to eat. I never could have seen this for myself.”

Derbidge feels similarly, saying high school was tough on her, and she struggled with many things including self-worth and body image. At first, college didn’t look as though it would be much better. “At the beginning of my first semester, I went through a period of depression. I was very overwhelmed by everything. I felt like I had nowhere to go, and I was all alone.”

Now the two of them feel as though they belong somewhere and that something belongs to them. They are discovering who they are and who they can be, with and without boxing gloves on.

“I’m embracing this,” states Bongiorno. “Since I've started, I've wanted to see how far I can go and how much I can grow. It’s really empowering.”

Derbidge says she’s excited to see herself develop as an athlete and reach her full potential as a boxer. She already feels stronger than ever and believes that when she begins to spar, her proficiency and self-confidence will only get better. The promise of personal and athletic growth helps her stay motivated and focused. “I am so thankful that I put myself out there and tried this new thing.” Derbidge goes on to say she knows a lot of people struggle to find a passion or hobby or something they think they’re good at. “They're just kind of floating around. That used to be me. Even though I’m not the best at it, I can see my development. I'm getting better, and I’m pushing my limits and doing things I never thought I could. I am so proud of myself.”

Bongiorno adds that being able to share his love of boxing and provide support for others is a pretty good boost for his own self-esteem. “It’s this place where I can connect with people and share my passion. It’s where I can motivate them to grow, too, which is a wonderful, wonderful feeling.”

Giving it a Shot

Bongiorno hopes to one day say Penn State Altoona also has a boxing team on campus that would compete and spar with teams from other colleges or area gyms. He would also like to start fundraising in order to purchase equipment like headgear or arrange for transportation from campus to the gym.

In the meantime, he continues to spread the word about the club every chance he gets. His main way of doing that is one-on-one communication, where he’s found the most success. “I think people catch my enthusiasm when I talk. You can't really get that in a flyer or an email. I want to give as many people who want it a place to go and a team to be a part of.”

“Having this passion for boxing and being able to share it gives me a lot of joy,” adds Derbidge. “It’s a unique sport, and I really believe that anyone who tries it would catch the bug. So I say give it a try. I just know you'll enjoy it, and you'll love it just as much as we do.”