• National champion Molly McConnell is so skilled that foes are tough to find A Boxercise class five years ago gave pugilist a taste for the ring

She's already done her morning run and intense plyometrics when she hits the weight room for a daily session of high reps with low weights. When evening comes, she'll be in the gym for hours.

Molly McConnell breathes, dreams and studies boxing.

Five years of focus paid off in 2002, when the 30-year-old Portlander with the jaunty ponytail, multiple ear piercings, striking tattoos and solid muscles won the Women's National Golden Gloves championship. McConnell beat Angel Bovee, the woman ranked No. 1 in the title bout of the talent-deep 139-pound division. In April, McConnell won a rematch with Bovee at Portland's Governor Hotel.

McConnell 'is without a doubt the most impressive amateur boxer in the U.S. at this time. É She is really special,' says Tom Moraetes, a top trainer from Augusta, Ga.

Based on points earned in various tournaments, Bovee still ranks No. 1 in the country, with McConnell second. Two-time national champion and 6-foot southpaw Jill Emery ranks third.

Emery edged McConnell twice in tournaments last year ÑÊonce on a tiebreaker ÑÊand McConnell hasn't forgotten.

'Most boys are happy to get into the top 10; Molly hates being No. 2,' says Bill Meartz of the West Portland Boxing Team, McConnell's coach for the past two years. 'I love her attitude.'

Homework and handiwork

McConnell's parents, both schoolteachers in the Seattle area, adopted her as an infant. Though her parents separated when she was 4, McConnell stayed close to both of them.

At Newport High School in Bellevue, Wash., Molly excelled at basketball and softball.

'I was all-state in softball, but I never went to practice early. I never stayed late. I never took extra batting practice,' she says. 'When I first started boxing, I was unprepared for how hard you have to work at it.'

She played softball at Lewis & Clark College until a knee injury sidelined her (her fourth knee operation in the last decade came at the start of this year).

After 2 1/2 years at Lewis & Clark and a term at the University of Washington, McConnell decided she wanted to be a carpenter. She'd grown up helping her father, a science teacher, make things in his garage workshop.

'She used to come to the Long Beach Kite Festival with me every summer, and she'd help me teach kite-building classes,' says her father, Ray McConnell. 'She won ribbons for her kites.'

With her dad's help, McConnell entered an apprentice program and went to work at Providence St. Vincent's Hospital in Portland.

She was 25 and had been out of sports for years when she decided she wanted to lose weight and change her life. She'd taken a few martial arts classes and enjoyed them, so when she saw a flier for a women's Boxercise class at the old Grand Avenue Gym, she decided to give it a try. She would work eight hours a day, then hit the gym for three hours.

Fredene Allison, McConnell's mother, couldn't bear to see her fight in person but would watch fight videos at home. Though the lifelong educator was upset when her daughter dropped out of college, Allison supported McConnell's boxing career and was excited about her achievements.

'She'd tell all her friends about my tournaments,' McConnell says.

Allison died suddenly of a heart attack in March 2002.

'It was very shocking É traumatic,' McConnell says.

With a fight scheduled just weeks later, and plans for the big summer tournaments already in place, her impulse was to cancel, but she decided to keep fighting.

'That was a turning point for me, even as far as boxing,' McConnell says. 'It was probably the biggest experience I have ever been through. It made me realize that life is short, and you have to do what you love.

'She had a huge effect on my work ethic, my ability and desire to be in the gym every day, to keep improving and setting goals for myself and believe in myself. A lot of my strengths came from her.'

Riveted to the ring

The low-ceilinged basement boxing gym at the Garden Home Recreation Center in Southwest Portland is an intense one-room school. It sizzles on weeknights with dozens of eager students, male and female, ages 9 to adult, working at every level from fistic kindergarten to pugilistic college.

Lessons start with how to make a fist and where to put your feet, and they never stop.

'There's always more to learn,' McConnell says. 'Even the greatest pro is still learning, right up to the moment he hangs up his gloves.'

With the support of her partner, Dawn DelCastillo, a computer network administrator, McConnell is able to focus on boxing. For the first time, she can train without working a grueling day job.

'Don't think for a minute that I don't understand and appreciate the wonderful position that I'm in now,' McConnell says. 'Dawn has given me this because she wants me to follow my dream, and she realizes that I have a window of opportunity that won't be open forever.'

She and Dawn, 34, officially declared their union in a ceremony May 24. About 100 guests attended, including Meartz.

When she isn't training or fighting, McConnell works on starting a small business, selling collectibles and antiques on the Internet. At home, the couple keep careful track of two dogs, two cats and a feisty cockatoo.

A fighter's heart

Meartz says McConnell is 'exceptionally fast, exceptionally strong, and has a fighter's heart.' He ought to know: He has coached several U.S. teams in international competitions, including the women's world championships in Turkey last year.

Early in her career, the 5-foot-6 McConnell was tempted to rely on her power punching, but she soon set her sights on becoming 'an all-around boxer.'

McConnell, 23-4 with 10 knockouts, has never been off her feet in a bout. She has been decked twice while sparring with men, but generally, she more than holds her own against the guys at the club.

It's become hard to find female opponents willing to step in against McConnell. Meartz recently resorted to placing ads on a women's boxing Web site, offering to fly a suitable boxer from anywhere in the country. The only boxer who responded ended up backing out long before the bout.

McConnell is disappointed that women's boxing won't be added to the 2004 Olympics as an exhibition sport. She says this will be her last year as an amateur. She wants to storm the national tournaments once more before she joins the light welterweight pro division, where she might face not only Emery or Bovee but also the famed Christy Martin and Lucia Rijker.

Sue 'Tiger Lilly' Fox of Portland, a pro boxer during the pioneering 1970s, is impressed with McConnell's technical skills.

'I feel she will do very well if she decides to turn pro,' Fox says. 'She has more than paid her dues.'

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