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Sunday, June 23, 2024
The Observer

‘No gas in the tank’: Junior captains dedicate themselves to mentorship, outreach

Two years ago, Olivia Mancuso and Anna Prest gave Baraka Bouts a try. Not knowing what to expect from day one, the two joined hundreds of Notre Dame students in boxing in a way they never thought possible. With the club returning to full function after the pandemic, Mancuso and Prest felt the full extent of its community. Now, as the 21st Annual Baraka Bouts tournament looms this week, they are leading it.

Hailing from Buffalo, Mancuso studies applied computational math and statistics along with Italian. She resides in Howard Hall, also serving as a project leader for the Student International Business Council (SIBC) and working in Notre Dame Student Life. Even so, Baraka Bouts, which she heard about from a captain living in her dorm freshman year, is her top priority on campus.

“The amount of individuality in the club and the amount of individual attention that each boxer gets, it makes boxing feel more like a team sport than it has ever seemed to be,” Mancuso said. “The thing that kept me going when I was in the club was the amount of community in it. And the captains would come up to you — they’d be like, ‘Hey, let's throw mitts [or] let’s work a little bit.’ You meet your new best friends.”

Prest, a political science and Japanese major, lives in Ryan Hall. Like her co-captain, the Chesapeake, Virginia, native played sports throughout high school, primarily swimming. On campus, Prest balances boxing with the ROTC program, through which she first heard about Baraka Bouts. She vividly remembers showing up to a club workout for the first time.

“It was a Monday, and it was on the Jordan Hall of Science lawn. There were probably 200 to 250 girls out there, and it was 80 degrees and sunny,” Prest recalled. “It was a station workout, and just right away, the captains were like, ‘Alright, we’ll save intros for later. Welcome to Baraka Bouts. 200 jumping jacks – go.’ And I was like, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”

With the help of her captains’ leadership, Prest quickly realized she had found something not just enjoyable, but meaningful. As the club’s mission and alumni outreach captain, Prest is in close contact with Baraka’s social impact. Each year, the club helps fund new resources at two Holy Cross secondary schools in Uganda, St. Joseph’s Hill and Lakeview. Prest calls the service work a “handshake across the world,” a reason she chose Notre Dame and grounds for appreciation whenever she hears back from the effort’s beneficiaries.

“I’ve had the privilege of holding in my hand these letters from across the world,” Prest said. “That was just a surreal experience that I really don’t think I would get at any other college or any other club. It’s amazing.”

Mancuso also links Baraka’s outreach with part of Notre Dame’s founding mission. Nearly 200 years ago, Blessed Basil Moreau said, “The mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart.” Club captains still live by that vision, understanding a duty to share their Notre Dame experience worldwide. Mancuso, who leads the fundraising team, stated that the club’s global outreach has rounded out her Notre Dame experience.

The junior captains also feel an obligation to the Baraka novices who now don the inexperienced mitts they once wore. Prest, who wasn’t confident enough to enter the tournament as a freshman, places mentorship atop her list of priorities. 

“That gives me like a really unique opportunity now as a captain where we want as many novices as possible to want to step in the ring and feel prepared,” she said. “So I find myself speaking to those girls who are like, ‘Oh, I’m on the fence. I don’t know if I’m ready.’ [I’m] just bringing them up or pulling them in and making them feel empowered and that they can step into the ring.”

Both Prest and Mancuso will draw on past challenges to lead and compete well. Last year, Prest immediately drew eventual champion Lily “Chelsea Dagger” Whitman and lost by unanimous decision. But Prest looks back on the bout in awe of the opportunities she has to enter the ring, hear her name called and have fun.

Meanwhile, Mancuso has faced nothing but seniors over the past two years. She fell to another champion, Lindsey “Smol Ranger” Michie by unanimous decision in the 2022 semifinals. Whether or not she will finally face a younger boxer this time around, Mancuso understands what the bouts will require of her.

“There’s nothing that’s taught me more about myself than boxing in this club,” she stated. “You have to trust in all the work that you put in. You have to trust that you’re gonna know to do the right thing. So there’s a certain amount of confidence that you have to have in yourself as a boxer in order to step into that ring and have that.”

Mancuso spoke of other lessons she’s learned from her experience with Baraka Bouts.

“At the same time, there’s also an aspect of humility that it teaches you. There’s a reason the phrase, ‘Let the punches roll off your back’ exists. In boxing, it’s a lot of not taking it too personally, taking it one step, one punch, one round at a time,” she said.

The two have big goals for the 2023 tournament, with Mancuso focusing on the fundraising effort. The club has a goal of $100,000, which would be applied toward building a women’s dormitory in Uganda. In terms of club culture, she hopes to see newer members leave the ring confident in themselves and their place in the club. With trust and pride in her training, regardless of results, Mancuso strives to provide an example for those fighters.

Meanwhile, Prest wants to continue learning alongside Mancuso as they look ahead to leading the club together next year. She looks forward to building a positive environment through both fighter interaction and fan engagement while giving her all in the ring.

“My dad used to tell me growing up at the end of a swim race, ‘No gas in the tank, right?’ Just stepping out and knowing my heart was in it, my confidence was in it, I wanted to be here and I’m happy with my effort,” Prest said. “At the end of the day, that’s all you can really ask for as a boxer.”

This year’s edition of Baraka Bouts will commence Monday with the quarterfinals. They will take place from 7 to 10 p.m. inside the Dahnke Ballroom.

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