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Jock Talk: Gay Native boxer learned the ropes

by Roger Brigham

Being a jock is just one aspect of identity intersection in the lives of most athletes and coaches. I, for example, am a gay white cisgender short male wrestling coach. Having a bunch of labels to carry around can make one vulnerable to a tendency to see one's self as a victim of multiple prejudices. Happily, it can also be a source of survivor instincts and mentality - multiple backgrounds to provide balance, perspective, and strength.

Count San Franciscan James Eagle in that latter, happier group. Eagle is a gay Native American cisgender male, a recovering alcoholic, an orphan, and a boxing coach. It is an intersectionality that enables him to test his strength almost every hour - and pass his strength and wisdom on to others every day.

"Being Native, gay, and a boxer is something that I'm proud of as each one of those things have helped me become a better person," Eagle, 51, said. "Anyone could certainly exist as simply one of those things and be fine, but I like to think that I got to experience each one of them separately at different points in my life."

Eagle said he tried martial arts in his early 20s, but was struggling with alcoholism and also wanted more contact than the sport offered.

"I didn't get too far with it," he said. "I recall in martial arts training not liking the lack of contact, which made it seem choreographed. I respected that art but it wasn't for me at that time."

He also found that he gained a lot of weight when he went into recovery.

"I made a determination to lose the weight and started eating better, working out, and running more," Eagle said. "I was successful and lost 40 pounds on my own. But I wanted more strength and training and decided to take up boxing because I heard it was a great workout and I thought it looked easy. I was really wrong on the latter part - but was happy with the former."

He found a coach at the old Gold's Gym in the Castro (now Fitness SF) and told him he wanted to spar.

"Still thinking it was easy, I went into the ring and got my ass handed to me by a more experienced boxer," Eagle said. "But that taught me two really important things: I needed to learn defense, not just how to punch; and I could really take a punch and keep going. He didn't knock me down or knock me out. Yes, I experienced fear in that first sparring session, but it taught me to keep going anyway. Most boxers are comfortable in the ring and that develops later on with experience."

With time, the power of the sport captured him, elevating it beyond mere exercise.

"The more I learned the more I liked it," Eagle said. "I really started to see the art in boxing. Movement, defense, and punching. The way the body weight is precisely thrown into a punch. How effortless defense can be but at the same time can be psychologically crushing to an opponent. My movement is never what you would classify as a dancer/boxer, but more of a brawler who can dance around the ring when it's necessary. My years of running five miles or more twice a week really gave me an advantage regarding endurance in the ring. I'd see younger guys wither in the third round and I'd be breathing and moving easily."

Adversity and opportunity came in 2010 when he lost his office job.

"My coach responded by asking if I wanted to work for him in his gym," Eagle said. "I thought he was joking. Several weeks later, he asked me again - and I realized he was serious. I said, 'yes.' Started there with group classes, and then private clients came around asking if I would train them. In the meantime I also managed to get a USA Boxing Coach license."

A primary role of a coach is to break a sport down into its fundamental elements, then help his athletes master those building blocks so they can reassemble them and make the sport their own thing of excellence and beauty.

"When I train clients and athletes, I emphasize technique," Eagle said, who trains boxers at Flex Circuit Gym, Hit Fit SF, and through http://www.jimeagleboxing.com.

"I explain the physics of punching. How to throw their body weight into each punch and stay centered," he said. "For athletes who have the technique down, I slowly add in movement and defense. For those athletes who want to move onto sparring, we start with stationary drills and then proceed to moving around the ring with drills that are tightly controlled. Safety is very important. Having the correct equipment and technique is essential. Boxers also start to develop instincts on their own by learning to study their opponents' movements, eye and hand coordination, breathing correctly, how to conserve energy and knowing exactly where each body part is and will be. All this develops confidence in them."

Eagle said he began to embrace his sexual orientation his freshman year in college when he came out three days after turning 18.

"In the winter session I decided to take a tropical marine biology course that sent us down to Jamaica for two weeks," he recalled. "In the classroom before we all flew down, we had to pair up with another student to do research. My research partner became my first boyfriend. We both went to college on Long Island but he lived in Queens. Coming out in New York City was fantastic. He was a great first boyfriend and he taught me a lot. We ended up being together for three years. I've been with my current partner for 27 years now and that first boyfriend is still a good friend of mine." (His partner, Joseph, asked that his last name not be used.)

It was a difficult time to come out.

"Coming out in the 1980s was interesting," Eagle said. "Gay subject matter was just starting to be approached on TV and movies in a positive way. Coming out during the AIDS epidemic was tough but it was all we knew at that time, so it seemed like something that just had to be dealt with regarding sex and dating. For the slightly older gay guys that I met at that time, it was different. They were losing all their friends and family. As a community we all felt that loss."

Eagle said he was born in South Dakota, lived in Rhode Island until he was 17, then lived in New York and Los Angeles before moving to San Francisco 30 years ago.

"I've always known growing up that I was Native American and that I was born on a reservation," he said. "I didn't actually reconnect to the Native community until around 2000. Being in recovery had a lot to do with that. I had to hire a tribal attorney to open the adoption records for my twin brother and myself. We were adopted together. Reconnecting with family members was exciting and when I finally flew back to South Dakota to meet them, it was surreal. It feels like we all just picked up where we left off even though many years in between the contact was lost.

"Sometimes I get asked why I carry around my tribal ID in my wallet," Eagle said. "I tell people because I earned it and I want to remember that I was born into the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Dakota people and Sioux Nation. I don't regret it, but being adopted did take away all of my cultural identity. Relearning it is difficult but it gives me a slightly different perspective from everyone else. Not quite what a reservation-born Native would perceive and certainly not what a European descendant would perceive."

Eagle said he has worked to reestablish his cultural connection with other Native Americans through volunteer work.

"I do that through a group called BAAITS: Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits," he said. "I sit on their board. This is a group that offers urban LGBTQ Native people in the Bay Area a way of keeping connection to their culture by offering drumming, crafting, and dancing classes. BAAITS also originated this country's first Two-Spirit Powwow."

Now going into its seventh year, the next one will be held February 3 at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

As is the case with many LGBT athletes, Eagle said he has connected with a chosen family through boxing.

"I am not a team player in the traditional sense," he said. "This was always reiterated to me during my office work days on annual reviews. There have been very specific moments in my life when this was a disadvantage. I don't do well in team sports. However, there are different types of teams, even in one-on-one sports such as boxing. Creating those relationships are favorite moments of mine. I got to experience what team players experienced even if it's only a few words with another boxer when comparing routines or when you touch gloves before sparring, or when you see an athlete that you trained throw their first good left hook."

For information on BAAITS and next year's Two-Spirit Powwow, visit http://www.baaits.org .

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