By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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At 5 a.m., the green foothills near Fort Collins look spongy in the early light. Along a wide residential street of Laporte, a farming town turned suburb, a yellow windbreaker bobs in the distance. Shane Swartz, the national amateur middleweight boxing champion, has six 200-yard sprints to do. His back is sore, he's had five hours of sleep, he's facing a ten-hour day with a paintbrush in his hand. And he's thinking what a beautiful morning it is.
"The birds are going crazy down there," says the nineteen-year-old Swartz, pointing to a songfest in a clump of trees. Last summer Swartz, a two-time amateur champ who's the odds-on favorite to represent his country in the Olympic games, packed and moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. There he had expert advice and a state-of-the-art running track. He didn't like it. Back here he's on his own, with a subdivision block to run around that measures four tenths of a mile--an awkward distance for track work. Swartz marks his intervals with parked cars. He can live with it. Laporte is home.
In a nondescript cul-de-sac near his house, Swartz hopes next month to hold the "Fourth Annual Fight Night at the Swartzes'." The "just for fun" slugfest has outgrown his backyard, where he launched it as a high school sophomore by extending an invitation to his fellow jocks at Poudre High to put on gloves, pick out an opponent and find out firsthand whether boxing required anything more than a thick head.
Last summer a throng of 350 people shelled out $3 a head to see the show orchestrated by Swartz, who served as announcer, referee and fight-arranger, keeping the money he collected to help pay for his equipment and training. The Swartz backyard saw an evening-long parade of combatants, including some women, who donned sparring gloves and headgear and bashed each other around a practice ring. "We had bleachers, lawn chairs and two couches," Swartz recounts. "And there were a bunch of people on my roof." The crowd went through twelve cases of pop, 25 Bigfoot pizzas, and the boxing ring, which collapsed after a grudge match got out of hand and a number of excited ring-siders joined the bout.
With the exception of one kid who went to the hospital with a concussion, it was all good fun. The event even attracted the interest of Sports Illustrated, which ran a short writeup. The Swartzes' yard fared well enough, Shane's mother Cheryl told the magazine, "except for a couple of kids who got sick on us, and, of course, there was lots of blood." Added Shane, "I spent half the time laughing."
This summer's Fight Night will have a more sober purpose. Shane plans to donate some of the proceeds to the prevention of heart disease, which last January killed the only boxing coach he ever had: his father, Roger. The 47-year-old painting-crew supervisor for the Fort Collins public schools was driving a van of kids back from a weigh-in in Loveland when he suffered a heart attack. The van stopped in the middle of the road. "I reached over and put it in park," recalls Roger's assistant coach, Dean Reeve. "I think he was already gone."
Roger Swartz, a sizeable man with an intimidating presence, dominated his son's life. And death has hardly diminished his influence over Shane, who would rather train himself than let another man take his father's place. "What I am today is what my dad put into me," he says.
The 165-pound Shane is readying himself for the U.S. Olympic Festival, where he has twice won top honors as a middleweight. The competition is an important stepping stone to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. And as he has in the seven amateur fights he's fought since Roger Swartz's death, Shane will carry a special towel to his corner when he fights July 22 in a first-round bout at the Air Force Academy. On it is stitched a message to his father: "I hope that one day our dream of reaching the Olympics will come true. I can only do so with God's and your help."
Shane Swartz has a straightforward relationship with God: If he's doing wrong, God will correct him. "I've trusted fully in the Lord since I broke my leg when I was sixteen," he says. "Everything happens for a reason." By then he had won the Junior Olympics middleweight title, was playing varsity football and soccer at Poudre High and had accrued enough social status as a sophomore to go out drinking with the seniors. He even had a senior girlfriend. "I knew I was doing wrong," he says. "But sometimes I'm blind to it, and He has to show me."
The Lord's message came during a soccer game. Shane broke away from the pack with the ball and was speeding toward the goal when he got high-lowed by two defenders. He got up without the ball or a working fibula. A friend drove him to the hospital. "She didn't know how to drive a stick," he explains. "It was a jerky ride and my leg was kind of sore, and I have a little bit of a temper. I was yelling at her, `I learned to drive a stick when I was twelve! You're sixteen!'"