GRAND RAPIDS — Sarah Batenburg has always liked a challenge, and Grand Valley State University (GVSU), where she attends, offered her a new one: Boxing.
The 2016 Tri County High School graduate, who was a three-sport athlete for the Vikings, decided to join GVSU’s boxing club as a beginner this year and ended the season as a West Michigan and state Golden Gloves champion.
“In sports, I’m an aggressive person by nature,” said Batenburg, 19, who is studying criminal justice. “And when I got to GVSU, I saw they had a boxing club. So I thought I’d try it out. It sounded fun. And then I fell in love with it.”
The GVSU boxing club is less than a decade old and has gone through a few boxing coaches who mostly ran the club as a fitness workout opportunity for students. That was until Dennis Shimmell came on board.
Shimmell, who had been boxing since he was 14 years old, was approached by a friend who is an adjunct professor at GVSU to see if he would head the boxing club and push it in the direction of competitive boxing.
“Prior coaches didn’t push to become a competitive club. They were content just coaching fitness boxing,” Shimmell said. “For me, that wasn’t appealing at all. I don’t mind the fitness training, but I’m really a coach of boxers who want to compete.”
Though the school’s board of education wasn’t in favor of the idea of competitive boxing, Shimmell got to work, having only a month to prepare his boxers for competition. The boxers are in charge of paying for equipment and for their coaching time.
Shimmell had 20 to 22 students participate in the boxing club at GVSU, and only a dozen or so actually registered with USA Boxing to compete in the sport, one of whom was Batenburg.
“She was one of the females that was there working hard, trying to learn about boxing and trying to get better,” Shimmell said. “Some are just there for exercise and can tell not interested in the sport. Sarah was one of the ones I thought she was interested and wanting to move forward to compete.”
According to Shimmell, none of the registered boxers who wanted to compete in the West Michigan Golden Gloves and state Golden Gloves tournaments were ready.
“I didn’t have any confidence in any of them to make it three two-minute rounds. So I upped the tempo in conditioning, running, swimming, stationary bike, cardio work, to get their lungs prepared to spend energy,” Shimmell said. “They were gassed out after a minute of punching a heavy bag. Three two-minute rounds is hard. If you can’t do all-out rounds on heavy bag, there’s no way you can even do one round of national competition. That got them motivated.”
By tournament time, Shimmell had only four boxers ready and willing to compete, as some backed out owing to injury, conflicting schedules or just pressure of getting in the ring.
Pressure for beginning boxers may be fear of getting hit, but many of them are more intimidated by the spotlight boxing puts on them.
“It’s a scary proposition for anyone. Once it gets more real, it becomes scary,” he said. “People are very ambitious and wanting to do it, and then as it gets closer, they get second thoughts or nerved up.Ninety-nine percent of people that go in that ring the first time have a lot of fear. It’s learning to fight through that fear. That was part of my job this semester, to get some of the college kids to do that.”
Batenburg may have had some hesitation to enter into competitive boxing, but any nerves she had built up went away quickly once she got into it.
“I would say that it’s not as scary as you think it is. You have to put yourself in the ring with a coach, and then you’ll realize how amazing it is and how enjoyable the sport is,” she said. “You need to learn how to take the hit in this sport. You have to work at it.”
On April 8, at Grand Rapids’ DeltaPlex, Batenburg competed — and shone — in the West Michigan Golden Gloves tournament, beating her opponent in 37 seconds, making her the West Michigan Golden Gloves champion.
Batenburg was to face the same opponent at the Golden Gloves state tournament but the opponent backed out for personal reasons, making Batenburg a champion by disqualification.
Teammate Brooke Fox of Lansing also claimed a Golden Gloves title by default in her weight class owing to not having an opponent.
While Batenburg was disappointed she couldn’t win her Golden Gloves title properly, Shimmell said she earned it.
“She showed she belonged. She was willing to enter the tournament, weighed in, did everything you needed to do, just wasn’t someone to fight,” he said. “But it shows you are a champ, willing to do that. I felt pretty good we had two state champions and it’s our first year.”
With Batenburg’s accomplishments, she became the first GVSU female to compete in boxing, first GVSU female to win a match and the club’s first female to earn a title.
“I feel I’m very equal with my team, but I feel like I’m paving the way for GVSU boxing, too,” Batenburg said.
Her family was hesitant about Batenburg boxing competitively at first, especially her grandmother, Linda Batenburg, but they eventually came around.
“My mom wasn’t OK with it, but my dad was. The biggest problem was my grandma,” Batenburg explained. “She was really against it. Dad had to convince her by explaining to her I wear headgear. Now she’s super stoked and super giddy about it.”
With her and her teammate’s achievements, Batenburg hopes GVSU’s boxing club grows. She said being involved in a competitive sport like boxing is demanding, but the pay-off is great.
“Boxing has changed me for the better,” she said. “I’m more confident, more proud of who I am and what I’ve done that I’ve broken records at a university level. It’s very physically demanding, but I’m in the best shape of my life.”
With the club’s success this year, Shimmell believes GVSU can use it as a marketing tool to attract more prospective students.
“This says our club is becoming or has become a competitive club. (Universities) like that because some clubs draw a lot of students to the university,” he said. “It’s a selling point. When you have a nationally known club, that attracts students.”