The boxers at the Galesburg Youth Athletic Club don’t look like a family.
Out of the nearly fifteen students who show up to the ring three times a week, a good majority are Knox students who originally hail from as far as South Korea or France. There are 8-year-olds that walk all the way from the Galesburg projects to attend practice. And there’s 73-year-old Carlos Duncan, who coaches them all and insists that he maintains a familial atmosphere at his gym.
“They’re not fighting, they’re not arguing. They’re just getting along,” he said. His commands to his students punctuate his thoughts: “Elbows down!” “Hands up!” “That’s the way you start, that’s the way you finish.”
A sign hangs on one of the walls in the gym: “Galesburg Youth Athletic Club: Building for the future: A positive alternative to drugs, gangs and violence.”
For an hour and a half, students fiercely punch boxing bags and jump rope. They get into the ring and practice form. The only requirement is that his students maintain a C average in school. If they don’t, Duncan asks his Knox students to tutor the younger kids. He works for the Sandburg Literacy Coalition in between coaching boxing.
The way he sees it, sports are only two percent of a person’s life. The other 98 percent is communication skills, manners and life skills.
“I want to concentrate on the 98 percent. If I don’t do that, I’m a bad coach,” he said. Duncan realizes that a lot of his students may end up in juvenile hall or at the local correctional facility if they don’t keep up with boxing. Dues to attend the Galesburg Youth Athletic Club (GYAC) are $65 a year, though Duncan will occasionally cover the cost for his students that can’t afford it.
The Galesburg native has been boxing his entire life. His father founded GYAC, which used to be at the old YMCA on Ferris Street in the early 1940s. His brother later took it over, and Duncan stepped in when he retired from the Air Force in the early 1990s. Now, GYAC is located on Prairie Street. Even in the Air Force, Duncan coached and boxed in Vietnam and around Europe. He’s coached with the Olympics and worked with top ranking champions.
In his life, Duncan has been in 197 fights. Only five were outside a ring. People have tried to fight and provoke him, but he maintains that it’s always easier to turn around and walk away.
Even after he was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells, he’s continued to run between 20 and 30 miles a week. He recently received a stem cell transplant, which he would not have been eligible for had he not been in such good shape.
“I do what I can do. He has a plan, and I have to respect that. We ask God for things, but yeah, what’re you doing for yourself?”
On another wall, there’s another large sign: “The one day you take time off, that’s the day you get weaker and someone else gets stronger. The one day you don’t go into practice and use that day to the fullest, is the one day someone is going to beat you.”
This is one of the ideas that shapes Duncan’s coaching. He compares his sport to the story of the Three Little Pigs: the pig that builds the best foundation and is the most cunning is the one whose house remains standing.
“I get a lot of weird looks on stuff like that, but you can’t get it any plainer. If you want to get ahead, you’re going to have to work harder. These are the things I believe in,” he said.
Sophomore Xiong Wang has been coming to GYAC since he started at Knox last year. Sometimes, he has to run at midnight after he’s finished all of his homework, but to him, the effort is worth it. To Wang, it doesn’t matter what your technique is like. You get out of boxing what you put into it.
“If your opponent is not someone who really works hard, he’s going to be really tired and you’re going to be someone who perseveres. You can see your results just through hard work,” Wang said.
It’s this mentality that keeps Duncan going. It’s why he runs and continues to coach.
“This is my family. I’m helping them, and they’re helping me,” he said.