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At gym, punches pack lessons for all

• Ex-Golden Gloves champ dedicates time, space to the boxing way

Twenty years ago he looked straight ahead, preparing for the once-in-a-lifetime journey down his personal yellow brick road and a date with destiny.

The 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics loomed. An appearance on the victory stand and he would secure fame, fortune and the peripheral rewards that a gold medal winner reaps. All his hard work since he was 8 years old would finally pay off and put him in professional sports' fast lane of bright lights and large paydays.

But he hit a pothole and never made it to the Olympics.

Still, he was projected to be the next golden boy of boxing. After he turned pro, he was one of the first fighters to sign a contract with ESPN to have fights televised. He modeled Calvin Klein underwear and was the subject of a movie called 'Broken Noses.'

But his short professional career, although successful, hit a dead end, too.

Today, his road is a short gravel driveway. It leads to a nondescript tan building in a remote area of Clackamas County near Damascus. It's a far cry from his previous life, one spent on the world stage.

And Andy Minsker wouldn't have it any other way.

One of the greatest amateur boxers Oregon has ever produced, Minsker is doing what it seems he was born to do Ñ teach boxing. An auto-detailing business owner by day, Minsker sees his boxing gym as a sanctuary by night.

The tools are a makeshift boxing ring, five heavy bags, a speed bag, treadmills and free weights. The decorations include a shrine of newspaper clippings on the south wall in honor of his father, Hugh (an alternate on the 1952 U.S. Olympic boxing team), and boxing warm-ups hanging on the walls depicting the important moments in Andy Minsker's celebrated career, including his Golden Gloves championship.

'I've always wanted a gym,' Minsker says. 'The reason I do it is I want one other kid here to get to do what I got to do Ñ wear the U.S.A. sweats. The first time I got into a boxing ring wearing the U.S.A. stuff meant everything to me.'

Driven by desire

Minsker, 41, has been coaching at a high level for 20 years. He was the youngest head coach ever for the U.S. national boxing team and, while an active pro fighter, coached the Mt. Scott Boxing Club in Portland to national prominence.

'I'm not a lavish guy,' he says. 'I had money at one time, and I'm happier now than when I had money. If I want something now, I work for it, and it's a lot more fun getting it that way.'

Minsker will coach anybody with desire Ñ ranging from an 8-year-old learning to box to a 55-year-old trying to get rid of a beer gut.

He has a simple rule: 'You have to want to be here.'

One guy who wants people there is Portland Winter Hawks coach Mike Williamson.

Since fighting will always be part of the Western Hockey League, Wiliamson was looking for a way to teach his players how to protect themselves on the ice. He was tipped off to Minsker by a co-worker training at the gym, and the more the coach heard, the more he was intrigued. He met with Minsker last summer and discussed what kind of training could be beneficial for the Hawks.

'The thing that impressed me about Andy,' Williamson says, 'is that he didn't want to get guys into fights on the ice by the training. His philosophy is he can train players to be disciplined, focused and aware of all the elements he preaches when he coaches. We thought he was a good fit.

'Andy's pretty humble. I did research and looked into Andy a bit and was amazed how much success he had in the ring and where he took that as far as coaching at an elite level.'

'I think I can help them become better hockey players,' Minsker says simply. 'It's a contact sport, obviously, and has the intimidation factor.'

Hawks get off-ice lessons

It's safe to say Minsker was never intimidated in the ring. In 344 amateur and pro fights over a 22-year period, the only body part of Minsker's to touch the canvas was his feet. He says he was never knocked down in his career. He says he was 305-21 as an amateur and 17-1 as a pro before a hand injury forced him into retirement.

Minsker won the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials, defeating Meldrick Taylor in the 125-pound division. But Minsker never got to represent his country at the games, losing in a box-off to Taylor weeks later. Taylor went on to win the gold medal in Los Angeles.

The first time Winter Hawk players met with the ex-boxer at the gym, Minsker asked them why they thought they were there. One player raised his hand and said, 'To be better fighters.'

'No, that's not it,' Minsker said.

Another raised his hand and offered, 'So we don't get hit as much.'

'That's not it, either,' Minsker said. 'You're here because your coach wants you to be better hockey players. If you're intimidating to the other team and they're scared of you, it might make the difference in a game where they look over their shoulder and miss a play at a crucial time.'

With the hectic Portland schedule during the fall and winter months, it's difficult for most Winter Hawk players to visit the Minsker gym often. But those who do say the skills they learn about protecting themselves on the ice are invaluable.

'(Fighting is) not something I enjoy doing Ñ it's not that fun,' says Winter Hawk center/winger Kyle Bailey. 'But fighting is something everyone has to do in hockey, and sticking up for teammates is a part of the game. Learning from a national champion like Andy Ñ he knows his stuff and it can only help you.'

'It's good to come out and get a little more confidence when we do have to fight,' Portland wing Cody McLeod says. 'We can come out here and learn from Andy so when the situation does show up on the ice you're not going to be scared.'

Minsker also stresses that boxing skills can translate into other hockey skills.

'Most people think a fighter is a cement-hands type of guy, but boxing can help in all aspects of hockey,' Bailey says. 'Eye-hand coordination, passing, shooting, everything.'

'Even the little things he talks about doing Ñ like playing pingpong Ñ are good for quick-hand skills,' McLeod says. 'Andy helps us out with both the mental and physical parts of being a hockey player.'

'I love hockey,' Minsker says, 'and these guys are from Portland, and I want to see them win. All these kids have to do is prove themselves on the ice so they can move up and play in the NHL. All they need is a little more confidence.'

Race-car drivers benefit, too

In his gym, Minsker bounces from student to student Ñ bracing against the heavy bag, teaching footwork, demonstrating a jab Ñ whatever befits the moment, while passing out compliments and critiques. His internal motor is always on full throttle, and why not, since he's an avid auto-racing fan. The unmistakable 'Dale Earnhardt, 3' tattoo on his right forearm is a tribute to his second-favorite race-car driver.

The driver at the top of his list is a constant fixture at the gym and, especially, in his life. His wife of three years, Zoe Minsker, is a local race-car driver and finds working out in the gym makes a huge difference in her performance on the oval track. But she gets no special favors when she walks through the gym doors. She's just another student in the eyes of the proprietor.

'In here, Andy is the coach, and I'm just another person who comes in to train,' Zoe says. 'There's no 'honey this, honey that' Ñ it's all work and he's in charge.'

'When she's here, she's not my wife,' Minsker says. 'She's just another person training. That's the only way you can be effective.'

Zoe raced at defunct Portland Speedway and now competes at River City Speedway in St. Helens. Andy believes Zoe's early racing problems were due to her lack of conditioning and, with his nondefeatist attitude, Minsker vowed to fix it.

'Her first few races she was dragging so bad after a 40-lap race that she could hardly walk,' he says. 'Her last name is Minsker, and it wasn't good enough, so she had to start training.'

And train she did. She's in the Minsker gym night after night, and her steely-eyed determination in the gym and boxing ring has paid off handsomely on the racetrack. In 2001, the last year of operation at Portland Speedway, Zoe was named Rookie of the Year in her classification. After Portland Speedway closed down, she garnered the same award at River City during the 2002 season. Both Minskers point to her effort at the gym as the reason for her move up the points ladder.

'The biggest difference for me is that I'm not tired, I'm more aggressive and it brings out my competitive spirit,' she says. 'You have to be so focused when you're here sparring, anticipating your opponent's every move and planning your every move. It's the same way on the racetrack.'

'You'd never know looking at her that she's a race-car driver,' Minsker says with a glint in his eye. 'But boxing is great for just about every sport. You need to know what you can do. Now she knows.'

Minsker dreams of returning to the top of the pile and training the best amateur boxing team in the country, much like he did with his old Mt. Scott group during the 1980s. But for now, he's content with his little haven in the Oregon countryside.

'I'll pay the money to keep the place open for one guy that wants to be here,' he says. 'That's all it would take, one guy.'