Tag Archives: World Class Athlete Program

Former NCO looks to get back on track in boxing’s welterweight division

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

It would have been easy for Sammy Vasquez Jr. to take a step back.

After suffering his first professional loss and a health scare last summer, the budding welterweight boxing star could have set his sights on an opponent of a lesser caliber in order to get back into the win column. But Vasquez, a former sergeant in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, knows only one direction to move — forward.

“Boxers now, if they lose a fight, they take a step back,” Vasquez said during a recent telephone interview. “They fight mediocre guys just to get back on a win streak. I don’t have time for that. I want to fight the best guy out there. I don’t care who. Just throw me in against someone.”

That someone will be veteran Luis Collazo. Vasquez (21-1-0, 15 knockouts) faces the former WBA welterweight champion Thursday in the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card at the Horseshoe Tunica Hotel and Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. The fight will be broadcast live on Fox Sports 1.

Collazo (36-7, 2 KOs) will arrive in Mississippi with a solid résumé. Most of the losses on his record have come at the hands of world champions, including his most recent fight in July 2015 against Keith Thurman, the current WBA title holder. The veteran southpaw presents a formidable challenge in Vasquez’s quest to bounce back. But the former sergeant’s preparation, which he says has been bolstered by the removal of a tumor and a trio of parathyroid glands in his throat, is also aided by a bit of familiarity.

Vasquez was scheduled to fight Collazo in July before an injury forced the New York-based fighter to bow out. Vasquez was forced to adjust to a new opponent in Felix Diaz, an Olympic gold medalist for the Dominican Republic who gave Vasquez fits when the pair squared off at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama. Diaz’s fast hands and sprightly footwork nullified Vasquez’s game plan. Though Vasquez offers no excuses for his unanimous-decision loss, he does concede his health was a factor in the fight. The tumor gave him elevated levels of calcium and caused his Vitamin D levels to dip. He developed kidney stones. The surgery to have the tumor removed was scheduled two days after the fight. Despite that, he pushed forward.

“I didn’t tell anybody on my team about the tumor,” Vasquez said. “I kept that to myself because I didn’t want anybody to take the fight away from me. Diaz is a very tough fighter, a competitive fighter. The things that I wanted to do, I couldn’t do. My feet felt like they were in quicksand.”

Like a good NCO, Vasquez said he adjusted. He led Diaz around the ring, hoping the smaller fighter would tire from the number of punches he was throwing. Vasquez bided his time until the ninth round when he unleashed a flurry of punches that momentarily stunned Diaz. But it wasn’t enough.

“I just couldn’t close the deal,” Vasquez said. “I was just too physically exhausted.”

Vasquez didn’t have much time to dwell on the loss before his surgery 48 hours later. He says being surrounded by a solid support team including his coach, retired Staff Sgt. Charles Leverette, a former All-Army champion and the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program head boxing coach, made the healing process easier.

“They were there through the whole process,” Vasquez said. “Everything, through the fight, after the fight, they were there giving me positive vibes. The people that you really know are there for you when you’re at your worst or your best. It touched me. But at the same time, I don’t dwell on the past. I just get ready for the future.”

The immediate future brings an opponent who will be no pushover. Collazo is historically an aggressive fighter who tries to back fighters down, willing to eat shots to deliver some of his own. But Vasquez says he is prepared for any contingency the crafty veteran will bring.

“I have to stay on my toes, box him,” Vasquez said. “He’s always a come-forward guy. He takes a good shot and keeps coming and coming. We worked on a lot of game plans. I’m very excited about this fight. It will definitely test where I’m at in this game.”

A win against the battle-tested Collazo puts Vasquez back in the conversation among the upper echelon of the stacked welterweight division, his manager said.

“Sammy Vasquez Jr. is a warrior. He has the character to go forward,” said Garry Jonas, CEO of Probox Management, in an interview with BoxRec.com. “This opportunity against Collazo will be Sammy’s return to the big fights. He is at the best level and will soon be challenging boxers like Danny Garcia, Keith Thurman, Errol Spence Jr. and the best out there at welterweight.

“We do not want to make any excuses about his defeat in the last fight. I just want to say that we are convinced that this year Sammy Vasquez Jr. will return to the big fights. Sammy is a pro. He prepares for each fight with determination and that is what will stamp his name again with the big fights.”

The label of pro is one Vasquez has previously said he honed during his time with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. The Monessen, Pennsylvania, native deployed with the National Guard in 2005-’06 and in 2008-’09. His first deployment took him to Camp Habbaniyah, Iraq, where firefights were a typical part of the day during missions that took Soldiers from the base near Fallujah to the outskirts of Ramadi. Vasquez’s second deployment saw him split time between Fallujah and Taji.

Upon his return, Vasquez turned to the sport he had been a part of since he was 9 years old. He parlayed his boxing skills into a gold medal at the 2010 All-Army Championships in the 152-pound division and an invitation to join the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program at Fort Carson, Colorado. After his time in the Army, Vasquez quickly ascended the welterweight ranks, collecting the World Boxing Council Central American Boxing Federation, or WBC/FECARBOX, title along the way.

During his rise, Vasquez quietly dealt with the hidden scars of war. Before his fight against Aaron Martinez in January 2016, Vasquez revealed he had been living with post-traumatic stress disorder. Vasquez credits his wife, DelRae, with helping him carry the burdens and urging him to get help. He still goes to weekly sessions with a counselor and sees a psychiatrist regularly, which has calmed his anxiety. He continues to urge fellow veterans and Soldiers to seek help if life is proving difficult.

“The things that I’ve been through in my life are tough,” Vasquez said. “But everybody goes through problems. My message is there’s always help out there no matter what situation you’re going through. There are always people to talk to, there’s always someone to confide in. I would definitely take advantage of that. I think that’s the biggest problem for a lot of veterans. A lot of us are so thick-headed, we don’t feel that we ever have a problem or we ever need to talk to somebody. I really hope that people can start reaching out and start talking about their issues or problems with someone who can help them find a better avenue to get through tough situations.”

For Vasquez, the next tough situation arrives in one day, and he intends to show that he is ready to fight his way forward.

“It was a good thing I lost that fight (against Diaz) because I think that a lot of people were ducking me,” he said. “I was undefeated, an up-and-comer and had a lot of hype around me. So a lot of guys were afraid to fight me. Now that I lost, it’s ‘Oh this kid’s beatable.’ So hopefully now I’ll get an opportunity to fight names. Fighting somebody and beating somebody like Collazo I think is a great reputable name for me, especially after taking my first loss.”

Watch it

  • What: Sammy Vasquez Jr. (21-1, 15 knockouts) vs. Luis Collazo (36-7, 19 KOs) in welterweight fight.
  • When, where: 8 p.m. EST Thursday, Horseshoe Tunica Hotel and Casino, Tunica, Mississippi.
  • On TV: Fox Sports 1.
  • Of note: Vasquez is a former sergeant with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He deployed to Iraq twice during an eight-year career. The fight is the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card. The undercard includes a welterweight fight between Yordenis Ugas (17-3, 8 KOs) and Levan Ghvamichava (17-2-1, 13 KOs); and a junior welterweight bout between Ryan Karl (13-0, 9 KOs) and Eddie Ramirez (15-0, 10 KOs).

Get help

If you think you are suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, there are ways to get help:

 

WCAP NCO named to Impact25 list of women who have made a difference

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

It’s been a momentous year for Sgt. Elizabeth Marks.

The combat medic and U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program swimmer spent the summer garnering international headlines for a grand gesture while winning four gold medals in swimming at the Invictus Games. That led to an appearance at the ESPYs, the awards show that recognizes sports’ highest achievements, to receive the Pat Tillman Award for Service. She followed that up by smashing a world record and winning two medals during her first trip to the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The list of hardware is already impressive. But it received another addition earlier this week.

Marks was named to the ESPN Women’s Impact25 Athletes and Influencers list Tuesday. The list highlights the top 25 women who made the greatest impact in sports and the societies in which they live. Marks joined names such as Simone Biles, the Olympic gymnastics gold medalist who was also the magazine’s Woman of the Year; Kathryn Smith, the National Football League’s first female full-time coach; and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee.

“It’s extremely special to even be mentioned,” Marks said on Twitter about being an Impact25 nominee.

Her unveiling as an honoree was marked by an essay written by Prince Harry. The British royal was at the center of the moment that opened the world’s eyes to Marks.

In May, she made international headlines for her gesture at the Invictus Games in Orlando, Florida.

Marks was decorated with her fourth gold medal at the Games by Prince Harry, who created the competition, an international Paralympic-style, multi-sport event, which allows wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel and veterans to compete. After he placed the medal around Marks’ neck, the 26-year-old gave the award back.

Marks wanted Prince Harry to deliver the medal to Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, England, where she spent the duration of the inaugural Invictus Games in 2014. Marks traveled to London in the fall of that year to compete in the Games when she collapsed with respiratory distress syndrome. Her condition worsened and she was eventually hospitalized and placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, life support to help her breathe. She missed the Games, but Marks said she was fortunate to come back alive. She said donating one of her medals was the only way she could think of to repay the hospital staff. Her request was honored June 1.

“This is an incredible achievement by any standards,” Prince Harry wrote about Marks’ appearance in the Impact25 list. “And I know this is how she wants to be defined, by her achievements and her abilities. But as an Army sergeant wounded in service to her country, her journey to get to this point has been remarkable. To me she epitomizes the courage, resilience and determination of our servicemen and women. Using sport to fight back from injury in the most remarkable way, she sums up what the Invictus Games spirit is all about.

For Marks, her ordeal in 2014 wasn’t the first time she had to endure an arduous hospital stay. In 2010, after suffering devastating injuries in Iraq, she grew nervous about the words being bandied about her such as “end of service” or “retirement.” Marks called her father to vent her frustrations. The former Marine told his daughter to write what was most important to her on a piece of paper. She scrawled “FFD” in pencil on a torn sheet of paper. The acronym stood for “fit for duty.” She was deemed fit for duty on July 3, 2012, after several painful surgeries and exhaustive rehabilitation. Marks has not stopped trying to live up to the notion, resuming her job as a medic while also competing for WCAP.

She was back in the pool one month after her ordeal in England. Two months after leaving the hospital, she broke an American record in the SB9, a disability swimming classification, 200-meter breaststroke. Less than two years later, she set a new world record in the 50-meter breaststroke in the SB7 division.

“I was told it’d be six months before I got into a pool again,” Marks told the audience at the ESPYs where she became the first active-duty Soldier to receive the Pat Tillman Award. “I got into a pool about a month out of my coma. Without those physicians, without their service, I would’ve died. I hope that my service could eventually mean that to someone.”

Marks received a standing ovation after accepting the award on the stage of the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. She thanked her father and the Pat Tillman Foundation for turning an “absolute tragedy into a triumph.” She also thanked her fellow injured service members throughout the world for their support. She said any success she found at the Rio Paralympics would be because of them.

And find success she did. Marks broke her own world record in the breaststroke to win the gold medal. She then had a heroic swim in her leg of the 4×100 medley relay to help the Americans win a bronze medal after getting off to a difficult start.

The feat seemed to cap off a storied sports year for Marks. But this week proved otherwise. And that should suit her desire to inspire her fellow Soldiers just fine.

WCAP NCO’s story of courage shared with sports superstars at ESPY Awards

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

Sgt. Elizabeth Marks is more than merely fit for duty. She is a testament to service. On Wednesday night, the biggest names in sports were introduced to her story.

Marks, a combat medic and member of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete program of Fort Carson, Colorado, was presented with the Pat Tillman Award for Service during the ESPYs. The awards show, which recognizes grand sports achievements, aired on ABC.

Marks is the first active-duty Soldier to receive the award. She was awarded for using swimming to recover from debilitating hip injuries she received in Iraq in 2010. Marks has not only parlayed her newfound sport to great heights — last week she was named to the 2016 U.S. Paralympic swim team that will compete later this year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She has also inspired hordes of her fellow Soldiers.

“I have struggled for a long time with survival guilt,” Marks said in a video shown to the audience before the award presentation. “I felt selfish for wanting to go and compete when I could do other things to help people. I started getting mail and having people reach out to me who had been injured saying, ‘I saw your story and I wanted to go swim,’ and that, for me, was better than any medal I could ever win.”

But win she has. Marks is ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100-meter breaststroke. But beyond her prowess in the pool, Marks has also displayed immense gratitude and humility. That was no more evident than earlier this year when she made international headlines for her gesture at the Invictus Games in Orlando, Florida.

Marks was decorated with her fourth gold medal at the Games by Prince Harry, the British royal who created the competition, an international Paralympic-style, multi-sport event, which allows wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel and veterans to compete. After he placed the medal around Marks’ neck, the 25-year-old gave the award back.

Marks wanted Prince Harry to deliver the medal to Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, England, where she spent the duration of the inaugural Invictus Games in 2014. Marks traveled to London in the fall of that year to compete in the Games when she collapsed with respiratory distress syndrome. Her condition worsened and she was eventually hospitalized and placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, life support to help her breathe. She missed the Games, but Marks said she was fortunate to come back alive. She said donating one of her medals was the only way she could think of to repay the hospital staff. Her request was honored June 1.

For Marks, it wasn’t the first time she had to endure an arduous hospital stay. In 2010, after suffering devastating injuries in Iraq, she grew nervous about the words being bandied about her such as “end of service” or “retirement.” Marks called her father to vent her frustrations. The former Marine told his daughter to write what was most important to her on a piece of paper. She scrawled “FFD” in pencil on a torn sheet of paper. The acronym stood for “fit for duty.” She was deemed fit for duty on July 3, 2012, after several painful surgeries and exhaustive rehabilitation. Marks has not stopped trying to live up to the notion, resuming her job as a medic while also competing for WCAP.

She was back in the pool one month after her ordeal in England. Two months after leaving the hospital, she broke an American record in the SB9, a disability swimming classification, 200-meter breaststroke. Less than two years later, she set a new world record in the 50-meter breaststroke in the SB7 division.

“I was told it’d be six months before I got into a pool again,” Marks said during the video. “I got into a pool about a month out of my coma. Without those physicians, without their service, I would’ve died. I hope that my service could eventually mean that to someone.”

Marks received a standing ovation after accepting the award on the stage of the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. She thanked her father and the Pat Tillman Foundation for turning an “absolute tragedy into a triumph.” She also thanked her fellow injured service members throughout the world for their support. She said any success she finds at the Rio Paralympics will be because of them. Marks closed with an emotional parting message.

“If you’re hurting, whether it’s mental or emotional, if ever you think you’re alone, you’re not,” she said. “And if ever you think no one cares, I do. Please come join me behind the blocks.”

Sgt. Elizabeth Marks gave an emotional speech after receiving the Pat Tillman Award for Service during the ESPY Awards on Wednesday night in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program)
Sgt. Elizabeth Marks gave an emotional speech after receiving the Pat Tillman Award for Service during the ESPY Awards on Wednesday night in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program)