Jen Hamann wanted people to understand why boxing made her whole. She pulled her long brown hair back, put her fingers on the keyboard and tried to explain why putting the gloves on at age 23 made her who she is.
“The day I landed my first clean left hook in the ring woke me up to something I didn’t think I was allowed to feel,” she wrote last year in a Q&A for KO Digest. “Satisfaction without guilt, anger without reserve, expression without apprehension.”
From her sweat-stained hand wraps to sparring in a yoga studio, the Seattle-based Hamann had found what made her tick. Her coach, Tricia Turton, was awe-struck by the talent hiding in Hamann’s slight 125-pound frame.
She still remembers the first time she saw her box: “This is somebody that could do something,” Turton says she thought at the time. “When I started working with her, that’s when I really knew. There was no doubt in my mind she’s going to medal.”
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She did. Hamann won the 2013 USA Boxing National Championship as a featherweight. She won the 2013 Continental Championship in Venezuela — her first international gold. She dreamed of more of them.
Instead, she took a punch to the gut outside of the ring.
Hamann wasn’t feeling well midway through this summer. It was probably just a normal bug, she thought, but doctors admitted her to a hospital to be sure. On her hospital bed, she got dizzy, nauseous. She fell and hit her head, suffering a concussion.
A brain scan revealed something more malicious. It was a malignant brain tumor. Doctors told her that people with Grade III tumors, like she had, usually live about three years.
Yet after learning the news, it wasn’t self-pity that consumed her. Her only thought was how to get in a professional fight before brain surgery robbed her of the sport she loved. For Hamann, who had been painfully shy as a Seattle University three-sport athlete, a pro boxing match was about proving herself to the girl in the mirror.
Six days before surgery to remove the tumor, carrying a 31-4 amateur record, Hamann made her professional debut. She won a four-round unanimous decision July 11 at the Little Creek Casino Resort in Shelton.
It would be her first — and most likely only — professional fight. Multiplying cells had derailed her acceleration through the sport.
Expression without apprehension. With the gloves on, Hamann found a way to express herself via flying fists and instinctual movements that were missing in soccer, cross country and track.
“With sparring, or hitting the heavy bag, I feel very relaxed and at peace with the world around me,” she said.
She searched for that rush constantly. Even before Turton’s gym, Arcaro Boxing, had opened, Hamann trained anywhere she could — garages, rock-climbing gyms, yoga studios, city parks.
The peace she found in the boxing ring melted over into the rest of her life. She could have been angry when doctors told her of a ticking clock. She could have lashed out when her wedding this summer was postponed for brain surgery.
But the only anger she still feels is the old kind, the kind that made her fall in love with boxing.
Anger without reserve. Unleashing her fists to express the frustration she felt at herself for not pushing hard enough was OK in the ring. It sometimes boiled over, like when she popped Turton in the face while sparring.
Turton snorts at the memory, knowing it was just two fiery personalities working together for something special. At the time, they were training to prepare Hamann for the 2016 Olympics. Chalk that up as another dream devastated by the mass on Hamann’s brain. It’s a disappointment that makes Turton blink back tears.
“We lost at nationals (in 2014) and we came out of a really hard time period and were really starting to click again,” Turton said. “It was really heartbreaking.”
Hamann is starting to work out again, but it most likely will never be for another competitive boxing match. Yet what boxing brought to her life makes her happy with how she lived her 28 — and counting — years.
She’s invigorated others with her attitude in the face of something terrible. Hamann says her fiancé, Brian Dontchos, has picked up music since finding out about the cancer. Living his own life fully serves as a way to honor the woman he has loved for four years.
“He bought a really nice guitar and he’s been practicing every day for the past couple months,” Hamann said. “I guess I’m glad I was able to inspire something in somebody else.”
Satisfaction without guilt. Somewhere between slipping on gloves for the first time five years ago, and slipping between her hospital sheets for surgery July 17, Hamann realized her life had been enough. The woman who ran five miles to and from each boxing workout, then criticized herself for not pushing hard enough, was satisfied.
“I think it makes you reflect on what you’re doing every day, and I realized I’m not disappointed with my life,” she said. “Obviously, I don’t want to go out like this, but I’ve lived my life to the fullest.”
She’s scared, but it’s a trepidation she can tackle. It reminds Turton of what Hamann’s father said when his daughter picked up boxing gloves. She was doing it to find her courage, he thought.
Hamann smiles: “Which I did.”