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Steven Carson figured his six-month detention sentence at Spring Mountain Youth Camp on Mount Charleston would go by quickly.
Then, he could get back to doing what he liked to do: “run the streets.”
He had no idea he was going to fall in love with boxing, or that the sport would morph into a gateway for a future he didn’t know he had.
But now, more than a year after beginning his incarceration at Spring Mountain — a correctional facility for male youth between the ages of 12 and 18 — and less than a year after learning to box, Carson, 17, is a free man and an unbeaten amateur fighter who trains alongside some of the best boxers in the city.
Like dozens of other past and present teenagers at Spring Mountain, Carson got his boxing start in the juvenile correctional facility’s B.E.S.T. Program: the formal name for the relatively new boxing program at Spring Mountain, which had long offered traditional sports like basketball, baseball and football.
About 18 months ago, camp staff decided “we needed a different program,” said Russell Terry, one of the program’s three coaches and the older brother of NBA champion and Milwaukee Bucks guard Jason Terry.
“At first we were just running the kids and showing them how to hit a bag. And then we were like, ‘You know, we need to make this better.’”
Terry, a probation officer with a basketball and football background, initially oversaw the program before bringing on lifelong boxer and trainer Jeffrey Watkins to beef it up.
The two now lead B.E.S.T. along with Jason Symonds, and aim to use the sport to “prepare and empower youth with the necessary prosocial and interpersonal skills — while promoting positive attitudes for overcoming physical and mental self-destructive behavior.”
Terry said B.E.S.T. pulled components nationwide from several boxing regimens, value systems and texts, including President Barack Obama’s “The Making of the Man” biography.
“We’re pushing them to the limit: While they’re thinking, they’re getting these concepts,” like integrity, accountability, self-respect, and respect for women, Watkins said. “Let’s have them account for themselves as a team. Let’s have them come together.”
Typically, more than 20 kids of varying athletic backgrounds will try out for a session, which lasts from 12-14 weeks during their sentences.
Prospective boxers have to earn their spots and prove their dedication by completing vigorous physical tasks, like long runs in the mountain’s 8,500 feet altitude.
“It’s like any other sport,” Terry said. “We cut it down to 15 … it’s part of a team now.
”You have to commit to being part of the team just like the other programs here … They have to work hard in the school, in the dorm with the rest of our staff.”
Watkins said “there’s a higher standard. If you’re not the best. We don’t want you.”
Worthy participants get access to the facilities and equipment.
“You’re going to earn these gloves, earn this gear,” Watkins said. “You’re going to go through all this running, all this training, all these workouts until we get to showing you what you want.”
Kids spend a couple weeks learning footwork and a couple weeks learning basic punches before combining the movements.
Occasionally, famous fighters like Jessie Vargas, Kevin Kelly, Zab Judah and Shaun Porter will stop by to help the teens learn important skills in and out of the ring.
“The sport of boxing teaches you responsibility, teaches you self-respect, teaches you to respect others,” said Vargas, who is currently in training camp preparing to fight Manny Pacquiao on Nov. 5. “Once these kids learn to have respect for themselves and others, that’s a big plus.
”We’re not trying to make champions. We’re just trying to make champions out of life.”
Spring Mountain boxers and staff have attended several professional fights with the program to get additional exposure to the sport.
Longtime local boxing trainer Armin Van Damme runs City Athletic Boxing Club and partnered with the B.E.S.T. program to give the kids a chance to work out in the city twice a week.
When the B.E.S.T. program is over, Van Damme opens his gym’s doors to its alumni and gives them the option to train for free.
“In boxing, you don’t have to fight to feel good about yourself,” Van Damme said. “Most of the guys that get involved, they do it anyways and they feel really good about themselves.
“It’s a really important program. It’s also a real good program to get them out of their regular routine and not rely so much on their peers to show them what do and what not to do.”
Carson was released from Spring Mountain in April and has since turned into Spring Mountain’s poster child.
He took Van Damme up on his offer and spends almost all his days at City Athletic prepping for his own fights or training other casual boxers who just want to work out.
Carson raved about the positives of the B.E.S.T. program and said it taught him morals that helped him turn around his life. He said he wanted to keep fighting to make the staff at Spring Mountain proud, and at 5-foot-5, he fights in the 130-pound weight class and sports a 4-0 record on the amateur circuit.
“It boosted my self-confidence for sure,” Carson said. “I knew I could do something. I knew I could do it right and I knew I could get better at it … I just fell in love with it.
“If I get in the ring and fight someone, I knew I could do anything.”
Sam Gordon can be reached at email@example.com.