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BEIJING 2008: Countdown to the Summer Olympics: 1 day

Plenty of fight in them

U.S. boxer Shawn Estrada's gravely ill father, Juan, is trying to hang on to watch his son, whose first bout in the Games is Saturday

August 07, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- Juan Estrada knows time is not on his side. So like a battered fighter waiting for the bell, he holds, clinches, leans against the ropes -- anything to stay on his feet a little longer.

Doctors told him he had two weeks to live. That was six months ago, yet Estrada isn't ready to go just yet. For 23 years, he has been training his son to be an Olympic boxer. Saturday afternoon at Beijing Workers' Stadium, that son, Shawn Estrada, will climb into the ring for the first time in the Games.

And Juan Estrada has determined that nothing, not even death, will prevent him from seeing the fight.

"I asked God to let me live," he said in Spanish. "That's why I'm here."

It's also a big reason why Shawn will be in China. Because on the eve of the final qualifying tournament, with Estrada's Olympic hopes bleak, the boxer broke training to see his dying father, who has liver and kidney problems.

That visit changed everything.

"His sickness, I don't know, it just gave me a lot of energy to fight," said Estrada, who qualified for the Games by winning the middleweight title at the tournament. "He tells me every day 'The reason I can't give up is because of you.' That's why I train hard.

"He can't make it to China, but he's going to get to see me in the Olympics."

Father and son haven't always inspired one another. In fact, there was a time about five years ago when they barely spoke to one another with the son, tired of his father's incessant badgering to box, leaving his parents' East Los Angeles home to live in a friend's garage.

"I just thought there was more," Shawn said. "We have a hate-love thing."

Estrada was speaking of his father, but he could say the same thing about his all-consuming sport, which gave him everything -- medals, trophies, travel opportunities -- at the same time it robbed him of the opportunity to have a normal life.

"It was boxing, boxing. Sleep, eat, everything boxing," he said. "I just got tired of it."

But Juan sacrificed too. A promising lightweight as a young man in Mexicali, Mexico, he had to give up boxing to support his family. So it fell to his three boys to fulfill the dream. And of the three, Shawn was the best.

"From the time he was 6 years old I would take him from school to boxing, from school to boxing," Juan said.

And when Shawn had won everything there was to win and had beaten everybody there was to beat in Hanford, Calif., Juan moved the family to Los Angeles.

"There was no competition for Shawn," his mother Sandy said. "We needed to move if we wanted the boys to become somebody. We needed to up the challenge."

Estrada would go on to win a Silver Gloves title, the Junior Olympics and the Junior Pan Ams.

"I was winning everything," he said. "I was good."

Eventually, the sacrifices and his father's pushing became too much, though, and Shawn walked away from the ring. So did his younger brothers, Patrick and Andrew.

But only Shawn left home.

"I told him the truth," his father said. "I told him, 'You are on the wrong path. If you go two or three months like you're going, you're going to be into drugs.' "

The breakup didn't last long -- two years, if you believe Shawn, six months if you believe his father. But both agree it was boxing that brought them back together.

"He told me I was getting fat," Shawn said with a smile. "He probably just said that to make me go to the gym. [And] it worked. I'm pretty thankful right now."

In short order, Estrada was boxing well enough to reach the U.S. championships. And last fall he fought in the third round at the world championships after dominating his division at the U.S. Olympic trials. The only hurdle left was qualifying his weight for Beijing.

Then in January, only weeks before he'd get his first shot at that, Estrada's father was rushed to the hospital with liver and kidney problems. Juan would spend three weeks in intensive care, during which time his wife Sandy gathered everyone to prepare their good-byes.

Well, almost everyone.

"I didn't know if I should call Shawn or not," she said of her son, who was training with the rest of the U.S. boxing team in Colorado. "He'll hate me if don't tell him but, I thought, for him it would be better if I didn't. Whatever happens will happen. But I wanted him to qualify."

Estrada, 23, didn't, losing in the second round.

And he was given little chance to improve on that in the final qualifying event in Guatemala in April. But in between the two tournaments, he went home and learned, for the first time, about how sick his father was.

Suddenly, he wasn't fighting only for himself, but also for his 64-year-old father, who couldn't wait for the next Olympics to roll around.

"I had my back up against the wall so I had to go in there and fight," Shawn said. "It was nerve-racking [but] it meant a lot to me to qualify.

"I'm just excited I'm going and my dad's going to see me. That's all I'm working for right now."

And that's all Juan Estrada is waiting for. Although he's too sick to make the trip to China, he promised he'll be watching on TV when his son climbs into the Olympic ring for the first time.

"If I'm going to die, I'm going to die. If God wants me, he's going to take me," said Estrada, who wears a pacemaker. "But I ask God every day that nothing happens that stops him from getting there. I wish it were tomorrow so I could see it.

"For me, I'm happy. He's on his way."

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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ON THE WEB

Video: See Shawn Estrada at latimes.com/sports/olympics.

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