People, Profiles

Longtime fighter graduates as a champion

By Joel Bahr

(UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally)

Members of the Cal Boxing team train in the basement of the Recreational Sports Facility. Downstairs, below the pounding of feet on treadmills and bouncing of basketballs, there’s just enough room to squeeze a boxing ring between tall white walls. The sounds of leather popping leather echo down there, and the smell of sweat doesn’t ever seem to go away.

It was here, in the basement, where Jacque Garcia learned her craft from scratch, where she earned the respect of her coach and peers en route to becoming the president of Cal Boxing, and where she stewed over a semifinal defeat in the 2017 National Collegiate Boxing Association (NCBA) national tournament. It’s also where she shows off her 132-pound NCBA championship belt, her Outstanding Boxer Award and the Cal Boxing women’s third-place team award she helped win the following year.

And while there are many things that Garcia learned in the basement — how to twist her wrist to finish her punches, how to cut down the size of the ring to pressure her opponent, how to breathe through her combos — one thing she already knew how to do before she got to campus was fight.

Garcia shadowboxing in the basement of the Recreational Sports Facility. (UC Berkeley photo by Stephen McNally)

Garcia grew up in Compton. The oldest of three, she says that she never really thought about college — the financial burden of higher education always seemed like an impossible barrier to clear. Her father is a landscaper, and her mother works in the home. But by the time she enrolled at Compton High, things had shifted. Teachers and counselors recognized her hard work and potential and funneled her toward mentorship programs like Elevate your G.A.M.E. and encouraged her to apply for a Posse Scholarship — a program that supports developing leadership among urban students, as well as provide pre-collegiate training and financial aid.

“I had no clue what any of that stuff meant,” Garcia says of the college application process and standardized testing like the SAT. “I had to reach outside of my high school to make sure that I was doing the things that would help me achieve what I wanted. It was stressful, but I had to be active about funding my own education.”

“My mother and father come from very humble backgrounds,” she adds. “I couldn’t rely on my parents to pay for my college, so I had to hustle to provide for myself. I learned that I have to be able to find my own resources and that you have to be very vocal about what you need.”

After being admitted to UC Berkeley, she interviewed for a Bergeron Scholars STEM Scholarship, which empowers students who identify as women and are majoring in STEM fields through mentorship and financial support.

During her scholarship interview, Garcia described the difficulty of her childhood in neighborhoods afflicted by gun violence, gang activity and poorly performing schools.

“To be believed in,” Garcia says, “I had to fight. I had to show that I did care about my education.” While students around her were giving up or being given up on, Garcia worked.

When applying for scholarships at Berkeley, her hard work did not go unnoticed.

“She is capitalizing on the promise of Cal,” says Diana Lizarraga, the director of the Cal NERDS program and part of the selection committee for the Bergeron scholars program. “She is that promise. The potential, the aspirations, the commitments to social justice in our community. She’s the type of student that we’re excited to have.”

Garcia’s gloves. (UC Berkeley photo by Stephen McNally)

Before Berkeley, boxing hovered in the periphery of Garcia’s world. Her father is a fan, and bouts featuring Mexico’s best punchers — like Julio César Chávez and Juan Manuel Márquez — aired in the background of her childhood. In high school, Garcia ran track and cross country and eventually — intrigued by the physical and technical demands of the sport — began wrestling. Optimistic that boxing would challenge her in a similar way wrestling had, Garcia tried out for the Cal Boxing team as a junior.

“What attracted me to boxing was that feeling that I had when I was wrestling,” says Garcia. “I want to be able to feel that I’m learning how to move my body efficiently and effectively, with the proper form and with accuracy, timing, speed and power.”

“It’s the technical aspect of it really attracted me,” she adds. “Using my brain and focusing it in a different way than academics felt really good. I loved it from the very first class. I knew I wanted to compete.”

Not everyone who participates in Cal Boxing is on the competition team. Because boxing is a combat sport and the risk of injury is apparent, only more advanced fighters who can defend themselves in the ring make the competition team and fight opponents from other schools. Before Garcia could fight, she would have to win over Cal Boxing coach Jon Zaul, something she did with her work ethic and attention to detail.

She turned heads in tryouts, explains Zaul, because of her “mental toughness, determination, dedication and positive attitude.”

“What stood out to me — and this is consistent with the rest of her character — was that she paid attention and really trusted the instruction,” says her coach. “Jacque is a true student of life. As I’ve gotten to know her, I learned that she’s usually the person who’s sitting in the front of class. She’s there, ready to learn, not showing off.”

The background in high school athletics didn’t hurt either. After demonstrating enough mastery to protect herself in the ring, Garcia joined the competition team within Cal Boxing. There, she took as many fights as she could get.

Coaches and teammates will tell you that one of Garcia’s strengths as a boxer is her timing, and championship timing is only possible by being acutely aware of others.

“As a leader, having that self-awareness and knowing what she needs to work on, how to lead to by example, and be in touch with other people’s needs allows her to think about the group as whole,” says Zaul.

Her commitment to others pushed her toward the presidency of Cal Boxing. An entirely student-run club, Garcia and her teammates are responsible for fundraising, travel and hosting matches.

“Our main objective in Cal Boxing is to develop as stronger, more confident people. Leaders with character,” says Zaul. According to her coach, Garcia has done just that.

Garcia working the heavy bag. (UC Berkeley photo by Stephen McNally)

A lover of math and science, Garcia initially declared chemical engineering as her major, but eventually flipped to computer science.

After researching her options, Garcia stumbled across Code the Change, an organization of computer science students from Berkeley and beyond who are interested in making social change an integral part of the computer science culture.

Until that point, Garcia had never coded in her life. She had to drop the engineering program and take classes undeclared, as well as learning how to code, before applying to enter the computer science program.

“It was scary,” she says. “But once I started, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I love that I could do something that provides a solution for other people, or help other people do what they need to do.”

Garcia now will graduate with a position as a software engineer at a startup in San Francisco called Circle CI. There, she will help other companies build and test their code prior to releasing their product.

And for any excess fear or anxiety, there was always boxing as an outlet.

Garcia, left, being named the women’s 132 pound NCBA champion. (Photo by Dawn Sela photography)

Garcia lost her semifinal fight during the 2017 NBCA national tournament by unanimous decision to River Goh of Penn State. Both Zaul and Garcia believe the decision went against her because she wasn’t aggressive enough. Collegiate boxing is only three rounds long, and often the busier fighter will win a decision by dominating the action in the short time allotted.

The following year, Garcia and Goh were paired up again, this time in the championship round. The results were different, as it was Garcia’s hand that was raised by the referee. And while it would be easy for her to see the victory as personal redemption, Garcia was more proud that her performance helped lift her team to a third-place finish.

“They put so much time into me and so much effort into our club,” she says of her teammates and coach. “I just wanted to be able to get that title to give back for all the time they’d dedicated to the club.”

As Saturday’s commencement approaches, Garcia sees graduating as a team accomplishment too.

“Seeking help in high school and staying motivated despite all of the negativity around me was very difficult,” she says. “It was thanks to the teachers who believed in me and motivated me, that I didn’t lose focus. At Berkeley, it was thanks to coach Jon Zaul who taught me that training matters, practice matters, discipline matters that enabled me to overcome self-doubt.”

“Graduation is going to be very emotional,” says Garcia. “I didn’t start thinking about college until I was in the eighth grade. I didn’t know if I was going to go to college, I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it. It’s going to be a surreal moment. I can’t believe it’s happening.”