Hands That Punch Also Gently Guide
By COREY KILGANNON
AT 5-foot-7 and 220 pounds, Sonya Lamonakis has a stinging left hook. She is the Women’s International Boxing Association’s third-ranked heavyweight, and has all but assured herself a chance to fight for the world title after beating the 300-pound GiGi Jackson in a six-round bout in April.
But her powerful fists become soft, instructive instruments in her day job, as a teacher at the Family Academy, a public elementary school in Harlem.
“Ms. Lamonakis hits big ladies and knocks them down,” said Shyanne Spencer, 8, in describing what her teacher does during time off.
Ms. Lamonakis, 36, teaches technology classes during the day and heads to Brooklyn every day after school for her training sessions, which often include a round-trip run across the Brooklyn Bridge. But at some moments of the day, her identities collide; while on lunch duty, she often catches herself shadow boxing while sparring in her head.
“I’m never going to quit my job,” she said. “I consider teaching my job and boxing my hobby. I didn’t go to college for eight years to be a boxer.”
Ms. Lamonakis will not book a fight unless it fits into her school schedule, she said. In February, she turned down a fight because she had promised to take students on a field trip. Her first professional fight, in Worcester, Mass., fell on a school night. Ms. Lamonakis knocked out her 21-year-old opponent and hopped in her car and drove back to New York City; she was on time for school the next morning.
“The main thing is that she never comes back injured,” Diana Diaz, the principal of the Family Academy, said. She allows Ms. Lamonakis some schedule flexibility when she is preparing for a fight. And fight results are always posted in the main office and delivered with the morning announcements, Ms. Diaz said, “when the public address system’s working.”
On a recent weekday, during a technology class for third graders, Ms. Lamonakis unlocked a metal cabinet and handed out laptops. While she tended to a student, several others fidgeted and began straying from their desks. Ms. Lamonakis seemed to be monitoring the classroom peripherally, the way a champion boxer might size up her position in the ring while tangling with her opponent.
“Girls, have a seat — too much movement for me,” she said.
Her students are intensely interested in her boxing career, and she uses it as a teaching point.
“I always tell them that it’s good to dream but that it’s important to get their education, so they have something important to fall back on,” she said.
At the end of class, Shyanne asked, “Do you still lose sometimes?”
She laughed and said, “Not in a long time.”
After school that day, she headed straight to Gleason’s Gym for a two-hour training session of sparring, shadow-boxing, conditioning and hitting the punching bags and mitts.
“Sometimes teaching is more tiring than training,” she said with a laugh as she drove over the Brooklyn Bridge. “Driving in the car is my recovery time.”
At Gleason’s, while shirtless, glistening men pounded heavy bags, skipped rope and shadow boxed before mirrors, Ms. Lamonakis changed into shorts and a T-shirt and climbed into a ring. With her hands wrapped and gloved, training began.
Ms. Lamonakis was born in Greece and grew up in Turners Falls, Mass., working long hours at her family’s grocery store and diner. She played field hockey and softball at Springfield College in Massachusetts and began teaching while studying for one of her two master’s degrees.
Ms. Lamonakis took up boxing on a lark, at the advanced age of 27. After being invited to a boxing gym, she found she was immediately hooked, and within three months she was competing throughout New England, sweeping major tournaments.
But after her boyfriend was killed in 2005, she moved to New York to try “starting over” and landed a job as a city schoolteacher. She began training at Gleason’s and almost instantly established herself as the top amateur heavyweight in the city, becoming a four-time New York Golden Gloves champion and twice capturing the national title. Since turning pro last year, she has won all five of her fights.
Known as the Scholar — both for her master’s degrees and her strategic boxing style — Ms. Lamonakis has handled many larger, stronger and younger opponents by ducking jabs and working her way inside their punching zones, and then landing short body punches.
“She’s not just strong and aggressive — she’s strong and aggressive and smart,” said Don Saxby, one of her trainers at Gleason’s. “Her aggression is premeditated.”
Ms. Lamonakis has gained a loyal following of family and friends, as well as teachers, students and their parents. Some of them — including one of the school’s assistant principals, Eve Navarro, even show up at her out-of-town bouts. Other supporters, full of cultural pride, show up waving Greek flags, the blue and white matching her boxing trunks.
“All Greeks are fighters,” she said with a laugh. “We’re Spartans. We have it in our blood.”