Jamel Herring already knows what it means to represent his country. He does it every day as a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
While it’s nothing new, it never gets old, per Herring. However, it will take on a whole different dynamic in July and August when Herring, Longwood High School Class of 2003, fights as a member of the USA Boxing team at the Summer Olympic Games in London.
Even though he’s traveled many miles to secure his spot, and will travel many more in hopes of reaching the medal podium, the 26-year-old credits his upbringing in Coram and regimented military lifestyle for laying the foundation for his success.
“It’s constant hard work and there are no days off,” Herring said. “I’ve never forgotten where I came from and I’ve just continued to do what I do.”
What he’s done is dominate the amateur boxing circuit in the light welterweight class, ranking No. 1 in the country as a result. In February, he repeated as champion at the Armed Forces Championships, leading the Marines to the team title for the first time in 21 years. A month later, he became the first Marine in 20 years to take first at the United States men’s nationals.
Despite his early success in 2012 as well as last August’s victory at the United States Olympic Trials, Herring didn’t secure his Olympic bid until he won his quarterfinal bout at May’s International Boxing Association (AIBA) American Olympic Qualifying Event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The American team’s captain, Herring will be one of nine American boxers heading to London.
“Up to that point, I was really nervous and had a lot of pressure on my back, but after I won, they basically had to escort me out of the ring I was so ecstatic. I couldn’t believe it,” said Herring.
Now a veteran of an estimated 80 bouts, Herring is as surprised as anyone that boxing became a valid second career. At Longwood High School, Herring dabbled in football and hoops, and also ran track. As a sophomore, fellow Longwood track runner Ashantie Hendrickson lured him to Atlantic Veterans Memorial Boxing Club in Shirley. Little did Herring know that his friend boxed and that his father Austin was a trainer, and that he would develop a passion for the sport called “the sweet science.”
“Ashantie would come over to my house and nagged me to come with him to the gym,” Herring recalled. “One day, I said ‘ok, I’ll give it a try.’ I didn’t really know anyone who boxed, period. And I lived on Long Island my whole life and didn’t know there was a gym. I went out there the first day and it was hard, but me being me, I’ve never been known to be a quitter, and I kept with it.”
Within three months, he was in the ring for his first fight, a victory. It wasn’t until the next year that Herring suffered his first setback, a loss at the hands of Brooklyn’s Danny Jacobs, who’s now 22-1 as a professional middleweight. It ignited his work ethic even further.
The 5-foot-10, 141-pounder will now compete as a member of the USA Boxing squad in London, first training with his teammates from June 27 to July 14 before departing for the UK. He’ll walk with hundreds of fellow Americans into Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremony on July 27. Boxing begins the next day.
“I stuck with it,” Herring said, “and if you told me then where I am today, I would never have believed you.”
Boxing long ago turned from a hobby to a fixation, but Herring knew all along that he wanted to enter the Armed Forces. That desire only strengthened when the Twin Towers were struck on 9/11. Herring was just a junior at Longwood. Upon graduation, he signed up for the Marine Corps.
Herring ascended to the rank of sergeant during his nine years in the service. He was deployed twice—first in 2005 and again in 2007. As a basic field electrician, Herring provided support for the Marine Corps grunt units, setting up and maintaining communication as well as power and amenities like air conditioning for the troops.
He’s the first Marine in 20 years to make the Olympic team as a boxer, and the 10th overall. Of them, Leon Spinks is the most famous. He won light heavyweight gold at the 1976 Games in Montreal before going on to a pro career in which, among other feats, he claimed the heavyweight title by knocking out Muhammad Ali. However, it’s “Sugar” Ray Leonard, the light welterweight gold medalist in Montreal, to whom Herring draws comparisons.
Working against Herring and his teammates: US fighters have captured boxing gold just once in the last three Olympics. Nevertheless, his goals are lofty. He’s hoping to bring home a medal, ideally the gold.
“I had a feeling that 2012 was going to be a big year,” Herring said. “I didn’t know how big it was going to be, but I had a good feeling about it. The only thing I have to do is take gold to top it all off.”