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!'"
Since then, God has sent him regular course corrections. "I had sexual intercourse with my old girlfriend when I was a junior," he says in a confessional tone. "The next day I got a speeding ticket." He also detected the hand of God when he broke a rib sparring last summer and when he got knocked out for the first time in the box-offs for the 1994 Goodwill Games. "When I'm screwing up, He lets me know," explains Shane. "That's my relationship with the Lord."
At 5 p.m. Shane Swartz unlocks the glass door to the KO Boxing Club, upstairs from a laundromat and across the parking lot from a live-bait shop in Laporte. He crosses the concrete floor into the dead quiet of the gym. Two boxing rings stand like deserted stages opposite each other, one surrounded by a steel frame from which a dozen heavy bags hang motionless. He hates to come here anymore.
Six months ago Roger Swartz would have unlocked the door at the KO after he got off work and proceeded to run his son's workout, barking orders, steadying the heavy bag, running the clock, just as he'd done since Shane was five years old. Since Roger's death, Shane has refused to let anyone else tell him what to do in the gym. "My father's my coach," he says. "He's still totally in the picture." Though his mother and others have urged him to pick a new trainer from the dozen or so who have approached him, Shane insists it's not necessary. He won the middleweight title last April training himself with his father's methods, he points out. He'll do the same for the Olympic Festival. "I can still hear him yelling at me," he says. "I know what he would want me to do."
Shane flips on a boom box, and country-Western music echoes off the bare floor and walls, two of which are painted Nebraska red. His folks came from small farming towns an hour's drive south of Lincoln, his Dad a high school basketball and track star who never made it past junior college.
Shane reaches for a jump rope and begins his third workout of the day, boxing boots moving lightly through the rope's whirl. He has just finished a ten-hour day painting the hallways and classrooms of Fort Collins High School. He could get by without putting in forty hours a week breathing paint fumes--he's living at home, and part-time jobs teaching boxing and selling Herbalife products have put enough change in his pocket to cover expenses. But he's worked the last three summers on the paint crew that Roger Swartz ran for the school district. "If my father was here, I'd be painting," he says.
So, four days a week he gets up and puts in his road work, then punches in at the paint shop at 6 a.m. Around noon he has lunch in the school-district pickup on the way to a fitness center: a couple of homemade power bars he concocts himself from oatmeal, peanut butter, chocolate and Herbalife powder. There he cranks through several hundred abdominal reps and a quick session of endurance weight training. Evenings are spent at the KO giving lessons and honing his own technique.
"It's pretty easy training three times a day," he says. "What's hard is working like my parents and my friends' parents have done for 25 or 30 years. My mom's a title examiner. If she screws up, they've got a lawsuit, big time. That's pressure. There are a lot of people who deserve more credit than me, and nobody ever hears about them."
Shane Swartz has a talent for saying things people want to hear from a star jock. It might seem like lip service from some athletes. But an orneriness that does battle with Swartz's humility lends a rough charm to his words.
On a recent afternoon he is interviewed at the KO by a Channel 4 TV crew preparing a feature on the impending Olympic Festival. He hits all the right notes: How proud he is to be going to the competition as a resident of the state of Colorado; how his first priority in life is to treat people right, respect women, be the best person he can be and serve the Lord; after that comes boxing.
But Julia Sandidge of Channel 4's northern bureau presses him on the subject of his father's death, shaking down the teenager for an emotional reaction. Her goal seems to be on-camera tears. Shane appears equally determined not to oblige, and the interview soon becomes a test of wills. His voice trembles briefly in answering the questions, but when the taping ends, it's Sandidge who's been reduced to tears. "I'm usually pretty callous," Sandidge says, turning to Cheryl Swartz. "But it's just so sad."
Shane also says the kind of things commercial sponsors like to hear--a habit that could prove lucrative if he makes the Olympic team. Sometimes he seems to be practicing. How does he get by on five hours of sleep a night? "That Herbalife is great stuff," he replies. But the neophyte pitchman can't help yawning by afternoon break time at a half-painted Fort Collins High. "I get bored when I'm not doing anything," he explains sleepily.
Certainly boredom is his biggest foe in the gym, where he's been going through the routine for fourteen years. To keep himself interested, he invents new drills. His latest could be called "wad snatch." Two or three wads of duct tape about the size of ping-pong balls are placed on the shelves of a dusty bookcase and snatched off in rapid succession. The exercise improves hand speed and punching accuracy, he explains, his hands performing the task at a quicker-than-the-eye blur.
Like his other drills, wad snatch is divided into three-minute rounds and thirty-second rests, timed on an old darkroom clock. After several mock rounds, he moves to a ragtag line of mirrors propped against the gym wall. Working on his head feints, he throws punches at his reflection. Defense has been a priority since a one-point loss in the 1993 national championship bout to Eric Wright, a rangy Army sergeant almost half a foot taller than the 5-8 Swartz.
"He told some TV people I was easy to hit," says Shane, still annoyed. The comment was particularly galling because the first boxing principle his father drilled into him was a defensive one: "Why get hit if you don't have to?" Early in his career, he didn't need to worry much about defense. A first-grader who can punch will dominate opponents, and by age seven, the freckle-faced kid--nicknamed Opie Taylor by one of Roger's assistant coaches--had offensive power in both hands that belied his Mayberryish appearance.
One drill Shane devised to help balance his ring repertoire sounds like a masochist's parlor game. Sitting in a chair with his hands behind him, he invites a twelve-year-old KO Club member known for his fast hands to take a shot at his head. "I can't use my legs or my hands, so it makes me get better at parrying with my head," he reasons.
When Eric Wright fought Shane again, it was for the national championship in the 165-pound weight class last April in Colorado Springs. "I thought I could box him the same and beat him," says Wright. "He surprised me."
No longer an easy target, Shane worked inside of the taller man's looping strokes, tagging his opponent's head with compact, jolting shots. He won decisively. "He has good, crisp power, and he fought a smart fight," says Wright, a 27-year-old soldier from Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Wright will be one of three possible Olympic Festival opponents Shane could face July 22 at the Air Force Academy. The Army fighter, who also has a second 1993 win over Shane to his credit, plans to fight the teenager differently should they meet. "I'll use my jab to keep him at bay this time," he says. "If he tries to come inside, I'll unload some heavy stuff on him." Shane doesn't figure to be his toughest opponent at the Festival, adds Wright. A 31-year-old Air Force fighter named Ronald Simms will be the hardest to beat, he says.
Shane listens to Wright's evaluation without reaction. Then he provides his own rankings for the competition. He has beaten Simms three of four times and lost to Wright two out of three. But Simms, he says matter-of-factly, is the better fighter.
Had he followed his feelings after his father's death, Shane Swartz would not have shown up at last April's nationals to defend the title he won the year before. He had no desire to continue boxing. Since his win over Steven Beets in 1994, some of the biggest promoters in the country had approached him about turning pro. But without his dad, it all seemed hollow.
Shane and Roger Swartz spent almost every evening of the past fourteen years together in the gym, remembers Shane's 24-year-old sister, Cherie Shaw. "When our dad died, he lost his best friend, he lost his confidant, he lost his coach and he lost his father," she says. "I know he's in pain. When I go home, it's hard for me to look into his eyes and my Mom's eyes, because I know how much they're hurting."
Shane got word of his father's death last January after losing in the first round of the trials for the Pan Am Games. He had gone into the competition with a cracked rib that he had repeatedly reinjured since the previous summer, when a sparring partner hammered him. The pain made his left arm almost useless in the ring.
Shane thought about giving up. Like most of the hard decisions he's faced, he found the answer in his father's words. "He'd yell at me when I didn't fight the way he wanted," he recalls. "[He'd say,] `You didn't hear a thing I said. I wasted the last twelve years of my life teaching you, and you didn't learn a thing.' I know if I quit I'd be wasting the last fifteen years of my dad's life."
It wasn't the first time he had wanted to quit. Both as a boy and as a young man, he came close to throwing in the towel under Roger Swartz's daily training grind, which meant two hours in the gym after a long school day that included practice for whatever sports he was playing. "I was usually doing three [sports], and one time I was doing five," Shane says. His father's idea was to have him participate in other sports to keep him from burning out on boxing.
Shane's two sisters, Cherie Shaw and 27-year-old Terri Swartz, say their taskmaster father was hard on all of them, but especially on their brother. "Dad never let up on him," says Terri. "He had always wanted a son."
The 240-pound Roger inspired automatic regard from kids under his guidance. "He was big," Terri says. "If you saw him coming down the street, you probably wouldn't mess with him." In the gym, Roger rarely raised his voice, says fellow coach Dean Reeve. "He didn't have to. His size sort of demanded respect."
And Roger's image wasn't softened by his personal style. He believed strongly in criticism, not praise. "Dad never hugged us or told us he loved us," remembers Terri. "And he would never compliment any of us. I never felt I'd ever be able to please him. Cherie never felt she could do anything right. In softball, I could have a perfect game, hit a couple home runs and come off the field, and he'd always have constructive criticism. It made me feel like, I just busted my butt, and for what?"
"He never told me `good job,'" his son says. "Ever." A nod of approval was the most the young boxer could expect. "When I was sixteen I knocked out a guy in 45 seconds," Shane recalls. "I thought I was the coolest guy in the world. Dad just nodded. Now that I'm older, I can see the good of it. It makes you humble and it makes you work harder."
A highly competitive man, Roger hated to lose at anything. And he hated for his kids to lose. Sensing running potential in five-year-old Shane as well as ten-year-old Cherie, he set about training them in track and road racing. Workouts began before dawn, with Roger giving route directions and sending the youngsters out of the house with a click of his stopwatch. Some mornings he'd climb into the car to make sure they weren't slacking off. "Every pair of headlights we'd see, we'd run faster," says Shane. "We knew if we ever stopped running, he'd catch us."
Roger's methods worked. Running in his first half-marathon at age six, Shane set an American record for kids seven and under. Cherie also did well, but she rebelled against her father in her teens. "I decided I didn't want to be a competitive person," she says. "I'm pretty mellow, and my brother has always been pretty ambitious. But looking back, I know my Dad just wanted us to be the best we could be."
Roger Swartz applied his winners-never-quit philosophy to the smallest of competitions, including weight-loss challenges he threw at his wife and daughters. Typically, he'd bet $50 that he could shed ten pounds fastest, according to his son. "He'd always win," Shane says.
"He'd say it was mind over matter," says Cheryl Swartz, recalling her husband's decision to quit smoking cigarettes and chewing tobacco cold turkey. He did, she notes with a rueful smile: "It was a hell of a week."
"That's what he stressed all the time--if you really want to do something, you'll do it," Shane continues. He pauses, and then adds, "It's a fact of life you're going to lose sometimes."
It's a lesson that sixth-grade teacher Steve Den saw Shane learn the hard way. "He was very quiet and well-mannered, mature beyond his years," says Den. "But he could get very upset when he was on the losing side." Den recalls an elementary-school basketball game in which Shane scored 38 points and his team still lost. "He came in with tears in his eyes," says Den. "I tried to tell him it was how you performed that was important, not whether you won or lost." The teacher wasn't sure his student got the message. "Then one day he came to me. He had just gotten back from a national tournament and he had lost in the finals, and he asked if he could show a videotape of the fight to the class. That was a big step. He had won any number of big victories, but here it was the big fight he lost that he wanted people to see. That took guts."
Roger Swartz was less gracious in defeat. "Shane had to be the best at everything, regardless of the sport," says Terri Swartz. "Dad would be furious if he wasn't." However, that anger usually was directed at a referee or a judge rather than his son.
Win or lose, it was always back to the gym the following Monday. Until two years ago, that gym was the basement of a bar owned by Roger's sister Sharon. The building was old, the neighborhood run down, the bar customers "rough," according to Dean Reeve. "There were a lot of drunks around," he says. The basement was dank and musty, a flood hazard whenever it rained, and noisy from the bar crowd and the jukebox upstairs. "It would have made a good place for a horror movie," says Cheryl Swartz.
Roger hung a heavy bag from the rafters and bought some jump ropes. The ring was a roped-off corner and a scrap of carpet. To Shane and other local boxers who gravitated to it, the makeshift gym was perfect. "It was like a Rocky movie," says Marcus Sen, a British flyweight with a Cockney accent who trained there for four years and became one of Shane's best friends.
To Roger Swartz, the gym was perfect for another reason. A driven man whose ambitions ran bigger than the jobs he found in construction and housepainting, he had turned to drinking earlier in life. Now, every day he could walk past the bums in the street down to his gym and prove to himself he was different. He was making something of his life and of the lives of the kids who came to him to learn to box.
"Boxing kept him out of the bars," says Cheryl. "Roger often said he didn't know where he would have ended up if it hadn't been for boxing. Maybe skid row."
The club was booted out of its seedy digs two years ago when fire officials decided the basement gym was a firetrap. There were few dry eyes among the boxers. "They spray-painted their names and their accomplishments on the walls," says Reeve of the group's goodbye. "They really liked it there. I couldn't tell you why."
His self-made station as head coach and gym proprietor brought out her husband's generosity, says Cheryl. "He really tried to help those kids," she says. Kids who could afford it were charged token dues. Advice was free for the trouble-prone youngsters who often walked into the club. "He talked about this one Hispanic kid a lot, how he wanted to help him stay away from the gangs," Cheryl says. "He did everything he could to keep the kid involved in boxing, but in the end we lost him to the gangs."
Such setbacks didn't derail Roger Swartz's commitment to the club, which moved to the suburban setting of the KO. He never stopped putting money into it, steadily upgrading the equipment, buying more punching bags, more gloves, finally a real boxing ring. "We three kids went without a lot of things because of that club," says Terri Swartz.
Anybody who was serious about boxing was welcome, no matter their color or neighborhood. "His theory was, for two hours a night, everybody was equal," Reeve says. "He was a good man, but he was hard on those kids. He made them work."
True to form, he was hardest on Shane. At the beginning, Roger wouldn't let the five-year-old get near the carpet-scrap ring until he could skip rope. It took weeks for him to learn. "He'd come home crying because he couldn't do it," Cheryl remembers. Once he put on gloves, his progress was quick. By seven, he had a reputation as a KO artist, specializing in gut shots that put opponents down. "I asked him how it was possible to knock out somebody by hitting them in the stomach," recalls Steve Den. "He told me, "`You can't box if you can't breathe.'"
Other boxing clubs soon got the word on the kid who looked like Opie and hit like Duran. "He had trouble getting matches," says Cheryl. "He'd have to box kids who were two or three years older."
To Roger, the competition was mere practice fodder for his boxing prodigy, whom he trained to fight ambidextrously. "He'd tell Shane, `First round, show him a right lead; second round, switch to the left; third round, mix it up,'" says Marcus Sen. "Or maybe the guy was cocky or something, so he'd tell Shane to knock him out. And Shane could do it whenever he said. It was amazing."
Shane didn't fare as well against the competition at home. His dad had a strict rule: No fighting outside of the ring or his boxing career would be over. His older sisters were quick to take advantage, amusing themselves at the expense of their small-fry sibling. "We'd do things to make him mad, like Cherie and I would get a marker and hold him down and play connect the dots with his freckles," says Terri. "He'd get so mad he'd just scream."
Today Shane makes use of those boyhood humiliations, telling interviewers he owes his toughness in the ring to his sisters for "beating me up so much."
To get his boxers in the ring as much as possible, Roger Swartz carted Shane and the rest of the club to weekend matches, no matter the mileage. Roger thought nothing of driving to the far side of Wyoming or South Dakota to get a match. "He lived for those trips," says Reeve. But to Shane and his sisters, the trips are remembered with a mixture of fondness and loathing as "Swartz vacations." Until he was fourteen and went to Hawaii to visit his sister Cherie, who left home after high school, Shane never took a trip that didn't have a fight waiting at the other end. Still, when his Dad was enjoying himself, times were good. Says Reeve of the road trips, "We had a heck of a lot of fun."
Roger Swartz would lighten up after a match, remembers his daughter Terri, though that didn't usually happen until perhaps an hour after his son had fought. "When we were little, I was the only one who could get Dad to cool it and relax," she says. "But in the last four or five years, Shane was able to get him to laugh, once the fights were over. He'd call him funny names, like `Little Eyes'--my Dad had really tiny eyes. Or he'd make jokes about his weight. He could make fun of him and get him going."
After his father's death, Shane got a tattoo on his left calf: two red boxing gloves hanging by their laces. At the top, where they're tied is etched "Mom." One glove is labeled "Dad," the other "Shane." The initials of his sisters flank the gloves, and beneath them is an "M" for his friend Marcus.
A nineteen-year-old whose mother lives near Fort Collins and whose father lives in London, Marcus Sen trained under Roger and lived with the Swartz family for a number of months after his stepfather died. He calls Cheryl "Mom" and is teased mercilessly by both Shane and Cheryl over his shoulder-length hair, which they find un-boxerly. Sen is back in town for a few weeks, staying with the Swartzes and training at the KO. He and Shane have the rapport of a couple of grade-schoolers, smacking each other on the ears with loose boxing gloves or trading surprise pops to the face or other sensitive body parts, with Shane usually instigating the slap-happy pranks.
In the ring, however, Shane is a demanding tutor to Sen. He treats his friend much like he was treated by his father--though, says Sen, "he yells more than Roger." When the smaller fighter leaves himself open after throwing a hook, Swartz blasts him with a straight right to the nose that stuns and bloodies him. "Coming straight in like that, I'll hit you harder next time," he says.
After the session, Sen looks abashed. "It's good, though," he offers. "Those big punches. It registers. I don't want to get hit like that again."
Shane prays before each bout that both he and his opponent will come out uninjured. The prayer sometimes goes unanswered, as it did in May 1994, when he suffered a knockout that broke his eardrum in the trials for the Goodwill Games. "That was the first time I said that prayer," he recalls, "and I was like, `God, why did you let that happen?'" Later he came to see divine wisdom in the injury. "It could have been a lot worse," he says. "I could have broken my hand, or my nose, or my neck. Or I could have hurt the other guy."
Shane is nothing if not reflective these days. He says he remains grateful to his father. "He knew I'd be good," he says. "That's why he pushed me as hard as he did."
Tomorrow, he adds, there'll be more three-a-days. "He wouldn't want me crying about him," he says of his father. "He'd want me training.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.