As a 16-year-old, LaRon Mitchell watched the 1996 U.S. Olympic trials for track and field on TV and dreamed of running in the nation’s biggest race. It didn’t pan out.
But last year, at age 31, he stood in the middle of a ring at the Olympic boxing trials, a single win away from qualifying for the 2012 London Games, only one year after he tied on the gloves for the first time.
Mitchell lost that bout in Mobile, Ala., last summer, but the 6-foot-4, 260-pound super heavyweight who trains in San Francisco will get another crack at joining the Olympic team if he can bring home a gold medal at the 2012 USA Boxing National Championships in Fort Carson, Colo., which begin today.
“I need to go on a six-fight winning streak,” Mitchell said. “But I’ve got to win the first one, then take it one at a time.”
The odds would seem improbable if Mitchell hadn’t strung together an incredible Cinderella run at last summer’s national championships, which put him on the short list of favorites to win this year.
“I don’t look at myself as a favorite,” he said. “I’ve had less than 20 fights in my life.”
Mitchell would have never stepped through the ropes had it not been for a teenage boy he befriended while working at the Larkin Street homeless shelter near Civic Center in 2010. One day, the boy mentioned that he was training at a boxing gym in the Excelsior district — Ring of Fire — and Mitchell asked if he could tag along.
Within days, he was dancing in the ring, training with founder Jimmy Ford, who said he couldn’t turn the 30-year-old away because he was so “kind and humble.”
“His determination is unreal,” Ford said.
One year later, with only nine sanctioned fights under his belt (and an 8-1 record), Mitchell went to the national championships and defeated the previous year’s bronze, silver and gold medal winners.
“I didn’t even know who they were at the time,” Mitchell said.
He finished in second place, earning a trip to the U.S. Olympic trials.
Despite nursing a shoulder injury, Mitchell took second again at the Olympic trials, but he needed to win the tournament outright to qualify for Team USA.
But the final chapter of this tale has yet to be penned. If Mitchell can summon the glass slipper again next week and finish at the top of his weight division, he’ll qualify for May’s Americas Continental Olympic Qualifier in Brazil, which will send three super heavyweights to London.
Whatever happens, Mitchell’s unwavering drive has left an indelible mark on the kids who train at Ring of Fire.
“The kids in the gym look up to him,” said 15-year-old boxer Dre D’amato. “When you have someone there who could go to the Olympics, you want to rise up, too.”
Regional fighters competing at the 2012 USA Boxing National Championships:
Light welterweight (141 pounds): Kevin Barger, Foster City
Middleweight (165 pounds): Billye Burke, San Mateo; Michael Fernandez, San Francisco
Light heavyweight (178 pounds): Keynoe Fenner, Pacifica; Hank Frost, San Francisco; Erick Hernandez, San Francisco
Heavyweight (201 pounds): Clinton Nelson, Redwood City; Nick Riera, San Francisco; Michael Marshall, Foster City
Super heavyweight (201-plus pounds): LaRon Mitchell, San Francisco