During the months of May, June, and July, 2019, I shadowed the Indonesian national boxing team at their training camp in Kupang. One of their coaches, Hermensen Ballo, lived twenty minutes away from me in the city and was himself a former Olympic boxer who represented Indonesia at the Atlanta and Sydney games.


Our gym was airy and cavernous and reminded me a little of a hotel ballroom. Red and white banners had been stretched across the ceiling lengthwise and metal posts lined the walls, spaced apart at intervals of about twenty feet, a heavy bag dangling from each one. The floor was made of white tiles, which become dangerously slick after a few minutes of shadowboxing and sweating. To help with this, hard, foam mats had been laid underneath all of the heavy bags and over half of the floorspace (the other half remained bare). In the middle of it all was a regulation-size boxing ring raised three feet off the ground, complete with a stretched canvas surface, ropes, and red and blue corner.


I followed the athletes' routine faithfully: warmup, shadow-boxing, partner drills, heavy bag work, and even light sparring. My skills were slow and choppy though and it showed. Early on, I remember feeling both embarrassed by and astonished at the fact that my presence was somehow tolerable.


After each practice, the athletes would gather in a tight circle, extend one arm into the middle, and chant together: "Juara, juara, juara, bisa!" or "Champions, champions, champions, we can!" The first time this happened, I hung back, certain that it would be inappropriate for me to join in. But Kornelis, one of the older and more experienced fighters, paused, looked around for me, and beckoned me over. "You are already Team Indonesia, no?" he asked.


All the athletes—even the ones who were local—were being put up in a hotel down the street from the facility, right next to an open-air produce market. This much seemed to prove just how official the whole outfit was. But like many other "official" institutions and proceedings I'd observed in Indonesia, this one also displayed a curious mixture of refinement and roughness, seriousness and casualness. There was the tile floor, for one thing—an obvious sign that the space was not originally meant to be a training facility and was simply converted into one due to its size and proximity to the athletes' living quarters. Behind the heavy bags (brand new) hanging from their posts (sturdy and installed especially for the purpose), long lines of ants marched across pale yellow walls and smoke from trash fires drifted through glass window slats (some cracked). On sparring days, the referees, who I assume must be licensed, arrived and refereed the matches dressed in graphic tees, jeans, and leather slippers while throngs of local children crowded in to watch or attack the heavy bags. The athletes themselves certainly looked the part, bedecked in official Team Indonesia gear and working up a sweat beneath polyester track suits. One day, though, after practice, Libertus, a soft-spoken light welterweight, took his trainers off and walked back to the hotel barefoot, his shapely, rock-like calves glistening as he tip-toed nimbly around broken glass and litter and the market's fly-bitten refuse.


As time went on, it occurred to me that this training camp, by virtue of its being somewhat rough around the edges, perfectly captured the idea that hard work was the only thing that mattered. And realizing this helped me to realize that I wasn't in the way at all—that it didn't matter that I wasn't good. My being there wasn't stopping anybody from working hard. We arrived each afternoon cheerful and relaxed and left most nights utterly exhausted. The tile floor got grimier and grimier. The air smelled staler with each passing day. We didn't care. We were getting better.


July 2019

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