Coach's Angels

By Amy Dolejs – April 9, 2013
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

At the Fit Pit, a boxing gym off Lamar and Oltorf in South Austin, it’s a chilly February Saturday morning. The gym opens at 10 a.m., and men and women of all ages start showing up a few minutes early, wrapping their hands and warming up by jumping rope and shadow boxing.

The gym’s main room has different areas. An elevated boxing ring that fills one half of the big room draws the eye—what would it be like to move around up there, punching and avoiding punches? There’s a mix of different kinds of bags to punch, a rope ladder on the ground for practicing footwork, a string across the wide warehouse door for bobbing under, and space in front of a mirror for all kinds of fun push-ups and other work.

Three women meet here twice a week for a shared personal training session with the gym’s owner, Coach Art Cardenas. Beth Kurtz, 49, arrives first, but soon her friends, twin sisters Misty Lininger and Christy Rockwood, 44, come in. Lininger carries a cup of coffee and offers a sip to Rockwood. They’re all dressed lightly for working out, and it’s still cold in the gym.

Kurtz is the first one who heard about boxing training as a workout about a year and a half ago. She persuaded her friend Lininger to try it, and she brought Rockwood in. They all immediately loved it. “We started in the winter,” Kurtz remembered. “We joked about Coach getting us ready for swimsuit season, and then when summer came, we realized—we were ready!”

Kurtz is extremely active. She has four kids, ages 16 to 25. She longboards with her 18-year-old son and also runs, belly dances, does yoga, rides her bike, paddleboards, and swims. But the boxing workout is, she said, the best workout she’s ever done.

Lininger and Rockwood have also always been active, particularly with running and doing yoga. They each have three kids. Rockwood’s are from 11 to 14 years old, and Lininger’s are 5 to 13. But they agree that with the boxing workout, they’re fitter than they’ve ever been.

Cardenas crafts their workout as if he were conditioning them to be boxers. They don’t spar, but they do full-body conditioning that strengthens all of their muscle groups and gives them explosive speed. The conditioning part of their workout involves jumping rope, dragging huge tires around, hitting the tires with a sledgehammer, doing planks (“LOTS of planks”), sprinting across the parking lot, working with free weights and kettlebells, doing jumping jacks, hitting the heavy bags and speed bags, and pushing a wheelbarrow full of sandbags. “Sometimes I push the twins around,” Kurtz joked.

They also do mitt work with Cardenas—he calls combinations and they punch the mitts, bob, weave, slip, step. To keep them agile, Cardenas also uses swim noodles—firm enough to be punched but light enough to be used to smack the boxer who doesn’t bob fast enough. All of them mentioned the mitt work as the most challenging thing they do, though it doesn’t involve picking up anything heavy.

“At first it was hilarious,” Lininger recalled. “We were so uncoordinated. It takes so much focus to really listen to the combinations.”

“The coordination,” Rockwood agreed, “learning that was hard. And he changes it up every time.” Passing behind them, Cardenas called, “I’ve got a booger for y’all today, too.” The women all grin.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for him. He makes it great,” Rockwood added. The others agree enthusiastically: “Coach is great!” But back to the workout—“The wheelbarrow is also really hard,” Lininger conceded. “Balancing it really gets to the core and the upper body.”

All three women have packed schedules, but they make time for their boxing workout twice a week because it gives them both physical and mental benefits. “I love hitting the bag,” Lininger said. “It helps relieve stress. I wish I had done it during my divorce!” She laughed. “It would have helped a lot.” Rockwood agreed and added, “And it gives you so much confidence! You’re your own bodyguard. I know how to defend myself now.”

They all nod and, behind them, where he’s working out the combinations he’s going to make them do with the mitts, Cardenas smiled. He likes their workouts together as much as they do—he calls them Coach’s Angels and has nicknames for all of them: Honey Badger (Kurtz), Baby Doll (Lininger), and Muscles (Rockwood). He is proud of how strong they’ve gotten, how much they’ve accomplished over the year, and the changes they’ve been working through together.

“I always want to come to this,” Lininger said as she finished her coffee. “With yoga or other things, I can talk myself out of doing it, but this, I want to come anytime.”

“We get excited about the workouts,” Rockwood agreed. “We text each other before them and say, ‘I’m gonna kick your ass.’” Kurtz, too, emphasized the camaraderie they’ve developed. “It’s so much fun, three of us doing it together. There’s fellowship. And Coach is over the top. It’s like four friends really, now. We do want to get healthy and become fit and toned, but also it’s fun.” Lininger added that they look at Cardenas as more than just a trainer: “He’s a mentor. He inspires us in our lives as much as he does in our training. He’s living his dream.”

The women support their intense conditioning with good nutrition—avoiding too many added sugars (including alcohol), decreasing the carbs a bit, and paying attention to protein. “Before this,” Kurtz said, “I’d be slamming pizza. Now, I go to yogurt.” Lininger added that Cardenas had also instructed them to eat a better breakfast as well as avoid eating too late at night. But they still have treats. Kurtz described the breakfast she’d eaten before arriving for her workout that morning—something that sounded amazing, with bleu cheese, honey, and pears. There are even dietary changes for medical reasons; Lininger struggles with rheumatoid arthritis and has made some diet shifts to reduce the inflammation. When she’s having a flare-up, Cardenas modifies the workouts for her, having her do lighter work on speed bags, for example, rather than punching heavy bags as hard as she can.

None of the women feel that they’ve slowed down much physically after they hit 40 or, if they did, they’ve almost reversed the effects of getting older by changing their eating habits and having a consistent conditioning practice. “I think I’m more fit than I ever have been,” Kurtz said. “My lifestyle is better. My diet is better. I’ve got the maturity to stick to it.” She points to her head. “I feel as good upstairs as I do physically.”


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