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It’s the last day of school before Thanksgiving break. Most students have already left the building; after-school programs have been cancelled. But a dozen or so kids remain in the upstairs hallway of Lucy Laney Community School, on the north side of Minneapolis, where Lavendar Nelson is leading them in a boxing drill.
“Jab,” she instructs them. She raises her right hand toward her face and snaps off a neat punch with her left.
The elementary students, spread out in the corridor, jab the air with their left hands.
Lavendar has become a leader to the student boxers at Lucy Laney. At 10 years old, she is a six-time national champion. As she’s grown, so has her weight class. She first competed at 90 pounds; now she is competing at 125.
In December, she hopes to clinch her seventh championship at the USA Boxing Nationals in Lubbock, Texas: that is, if her coach, Morgan McDonald, can raise the funds to take her. He’s started a GoFundMe to cover the costs.
Lavendar’s ultimate goal: to surpass the number of championships won by two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields.
If Lavendar continues at this pace, says Coach McDonald, she can meet that goal within four years. After all, Shields didn’t start boxing until she was 11.
‘She’s like a light’
McDonald, a student support specialist at Lucy Laney Community School and the CEO of the Lucy Laney Boxing Academy, still remembers his first impression of Lavendar, from five years ago. He looked out his window and saw a little girl and a woman riding by on their bikes. The girl was moving “so fast, so hard, so strong,” he recalls. From his window, he could see the child’s determination, a trait that would help her in boxing—and a lot of other areas, too.
“I can also teach her there’s nothing you can’t do,” he says. “You can do anything you want to do.”
He recognized the woman as a teacher at Lucy Laney, who turned out to be the girl’s aunt. “Your niece is very athletic,” he told her. “Would you mind if I tried her boxing?”
Lavender started training with McDonald at age 5.
“I was sloppy,” Lavendar now recalls her younger self. “I was not a straight punch.”
When she was old enough, she started competing in tournaments through USA Boxing, which is overseen by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee. Her first fight came at the age of 9—against a 12-year-old, Lavendar says. She felt afraid. But she wasn’t worried about getting hurt.
“I thought I was going to lose,” she says.
But she won against the 12-year-old. Twice.
Now, USA Boxing ranks her No. 1 in her weight class and age group.
LaQresha Nelson, Lavendar’s mother, recalls the first time she saw her daughter compete at nationals.
“I was scared at first, but I was like, Oh my God, look how amazing my daughter looks in that ring,” she says. She’s been impressed to see Lavendar’s discipline: After she meets one goal, she sets another. And she isn’t scared for Lavendar anymore. “I know she can protect herself in that ring,” says Nelson.
Lavendar has an overall record of seven wins and two losses. Most of her fights have come at national championships, McDonald says, because it’s hard for girls to get matches. She trains twelve to eighteen hours a week after school, and exercises at home after school and on weekends.
McDonald describes her as exceptionally dedicated. “She’s determined to be the best, she’s determined to do her best,” McDonald says. And it’s not just in the boxing gym. In the classroom as well.”
Lavendar’s mother hopes that her daughter will be able to visit Texas next month for the Nationals.
“I’m just super excited,” she says. “I can’t stop talking about it.”
Another win for Lavendar: a student-council seat
Crissha Walton, Lavendar’s 5th-grade teacher, says that Lavendar is a role model to her peers. During Lavendar’s last championship bout, Walton aired the match live on her smartboard while her classmates cheered her on.
“She’s like a light, she’s like a fresh breath of air,” Walton says. Lavendar’s athleticism reminded her of Tyler Johnson, a North High student who went on to play football in the NFL. She sees Lavendar’s future track similarly, as a “big-time boxer.”
“When she walks into the building, all the kids high-five and hug her,” Walton says. “You know, like she’s a rock star.” Lucy Laney students see Lavendar’s success as an example of Northside pride, she says.
Lavender is a good student, too. Her favorite subject is math. But she doesn’t feel competitive about it like she does about boxing, she says. Math comes easily to her. With boxing, she’s competing against other athletes and different styles. But in a way, she’s competing against herself, too, building her skills and trying to be better than she was the day before.
Lavendar recently won a spot on the student council. Her peers elected her on the same day that adults held their own elections, for Congress and statewide offices.
Why did she run for student council?
“So I could get my coach a parking spot,” she says.
From the garage to national championships
McDonald keeps his boxing equipment in a former computer lab on the second floor of the school: this is the Lucy Laney Boxing Academy. Posters for boxing events and old boxing movies line the walls. The room’s centerpiece: a full boxing ring. Gold medals from previous Laney championships hang from metal beams above the ropes that frame the ring.
McDonald first put a punching bag in his Lucy Laney office in 2017.
“I started with boxing because it was a stress reliever,” he says. Honest truth, when I have kids in the room punching the bag, they’ll come in angry. And then after hitting the bag about three rounds, they were OK, able to talk and able to process a little bit better, with a free mind.”
In 2019, with the encouragement of Lucy Laney’s then-principal, Mauri Friestleben, he opened the Lucy Laney Boxing Academy.
When school buildings closed during the COVID pandemic, McDonald set up a gym in his garage at home, in the Camden neighborhood of north Minneapolis. Students brought their laptops to his home to complete their remote school work. After they’d completed their studies, they shifted into their training. McDonald drove them to competitions in his van.
“A lot of the national championships came from the garage,” McDonald says. In total, he says, his students have won 26 national championships in the last five years.
Though the Lucy Laney Boxing Academy is a nonprofit, it does not have a dedicated source of revenue and does not receive funding from the school.
“I’ve been paying out of pocket for years,” McDonald says. My credit card stinks right now. I usually end up paying for everything.”
Lisa Pawelak, the principal of Lucy Laney, praised McDonald’s work teaching self-discipline and social-emotional learning. She also confirmed that McDonald often pays for these trips himself.
“It would be really beautiful if there was a way to make it more sustainable,” Pawelak says. There is no benefactor offering thousands of dollars annually to take Northside kids to national boxing tournaments, she added. But when people are able to donate, that money can really make a difference. “Taking a chance on individuals that are doing great work, I think, has much greater impact.”
The stack of tires in the corner, which serves as a makeshift punching bag? McDonald scavenged them from the alley. Another, actual punching bag came from Facebook Marketplace. After McDonald won an education award, he used the prize money to pay for the boxing ring.
The No. 1 champion
Lavendar approaches her coach, wearing red gloves, and asks if she can spar. Yes, he replies, but her gloves are too small.
“If Lavey spars somebody in these, they’re going to cry,” he explains. “She hits hard.”
McDonald gives her a new pair of larger blue gloves, with Lucy Laney Boxing Academy’s logo on them. “You can have these,” he tells her. She smiles, exposing a gap in her front teeth.
Lavendar enters the ring with another student, both wearing protective headgear and Lucy Laney Boxing Academy hoodies. Lavendar’s opponent wears red gloves, like the ones that were too small for Lavendar. “Smooth,” McDonald reminds Lavender. “Not too aggressive.”
Since Lavendar’s skills are so advanced, McDonald sometimes tells her to ease up against other kids—which means she isn’t using her full potential. That’s why competing in championships, against other kids at her level, is so important.
A child wearing yellow sneakers and a Lucy Laney Boxing Academy T-shirt approaches McDonald.
“Is Lavey the No. 1 champion?” he asks his coach.
“Of course she is,” McDonald replies.
You can donate to the GoFundMe to send Lavendar to the USA Boxing National Championships here. The contest will be held December 3 through 10 in Lubbock, Texas.