Before U.S. Marine Sgt. Jamel Herring of Long Island stepped into the Olympic boxing ring for the first time, he gave a soldier’s salute to his cheering teammates. Then he thought about his late daughter and said a quick prayer, giving thanks for the strength to reach the ring after a decade of struggle.
And although his opening-round loss hurt, Herring has survived rougher times.
Daniyar Yeleussinov of Kazakhstan ended Herring’s Olympic aspirations with a 19-9 victory Tuesday in their light welterweight bout.
Herring couldn’t keep up with Yeleussinov, whose aggression and quick hands repeatedly got Herring in trouble during the first two rounds. Yeleussinov mostly spent the third round avoiding exchanges, but Herring couldn’t score enough points for a comeback.
Even in defeat, his voice nearly cracking at times, Herring remained clear-eyed and strong.
“It’s a great honor to be here,” Herring said afterward, sweat still beaded on his shoulders. “Everyone, especially back at home, knows what I’ve been through.”
Just getting into the ring was another triumph for Herring, who served two tours of duty in Iraq as a field electrician, dodging roadside bombs and hoping to return home to his growing family, which now includes two sons.
The Coram native enlisted in a patriotic fervor about a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, but he also found escape in boxing, his intermittent pastime throughout his life.
With the demands of family and a military career, he considered giving up the sport multiple times, particularly after the death of his infant daughter, Ariyanah, due to sudden infant death syndrome in 2009 — three years to the day before the opening ceremony in London.
Coaches and teammates persuaded him to stick with it, and he became a respected captain of the U.S. team when he led six boxers — including himself — to Olympic qualification in a tournament in Brazil earlier this summer.
“I thought about Ariyanah from the first moment that I stepped in the ring until the very last moment I got out of the ring,” Herring said. “I was thinking about her, my country, my team, the Marine Corps. A lot was going through my head — not a lot to where I was getting sidetracked. I was just going out there to fight for everyone in my heart.”
After Herring left the ring, his first hug was for Jesse Ravelo, the U.S. assistant coach who runs the Marines’ boxing program. Ravelo was instrumental in refocusing Herring’s attention on boxing after his daughter’s death and again after a disappointing loss at the world championships last year that left him facing a steep road for Olympic qualification.
Herring then gave a slow salute toward the rest of his 12-member U.S. team, which has gathered in the London arena to cheer on every American fighter — not always the case with previous American teams.
“You’ve got to keep them uplifted,” Herring said. “I don’t want anyone to feel down.”
The U.S. boxers won their first four fights in London before Marcus Browne’s loss Monday. Three more Americans will be in the ring Wednesday, and Herring intends to be in the U.S. team’s usual spot above the exit tunnel at ExCeL arena, cheering and encouraging.
“Not really too happy, but I’ll keep my head up as team captain,” Herring said. “If I’m down, then my team is down. It hurts, but I’m glad I was able to come here, put on a USA uniform and represent my country. I believe I did to the best of my ability. He was just the better man today. It’s not the end of the world.”
After the Olympics, Herring will return to his home near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, but hasn’t decided whether he’ll re-enlist with the Marines in a few months. He is considering a pro career, although the financial rewards for a 26-year-old light welterweight might not be stellar, even with an Olympic pedigree.
And even with the sting of his Olympic loss still fresh, Herring immediately raised the prospect he might stay in the amateur ranks for four more years of fighting for his country.
“I know in my heart that I did the best I could,” he said. “The people at home told me, no matter the result, I am still a hero, I am still a champion, and I’m going to take that confidence and uplift myself. It’s not the end of the world. People bounce back. A lot of great champions took losses and they came back, so why can’t I?”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.