Sometimes, it just feels really good to punch something.
This sentiment became, if it was not already, a universal truth in 2020, a punchable year if ever there was one. Channeling feelings into fists isn’t new when it comes to fitness trends, but boxing and boxing-style exercise classes have traditionally attracted a heavily male-dominated clientele.
That’s not the case at Hill Street Boxing in Southampton.
Women are not only welcome at the gym, which founders Avery Crocker and Thomas Haynia opened in Southampton Village in 2018 — they often outnumber the men in certain classes, and can be found teaching classes as well.
The women who have become regulars at Hill Street also prove how foolish it can be to carry any preconceived notions about what a female boxer might look or act like, showing that a sport that might seem geared toward a certain kind of person can, in fact, be beneficial for anyone.
For most of her life, Emily Squires watched her parents, Lauren and Jason, diligently stick to exercise routines. But it wasn’t until she saw an advertisement for Hill Street Boxing, while ice skating with a group of friends two years ago, that she decided to give it a try.
“I’d always seen people in those fight shows, and thought it was so cool,” said Squires, now a 15-year-old sophomore at Pierson High School. She convinced a friend to take a class with her, and was hooked (no pun intended) immediately.
Squires is, by her own account, shy, and had never really embraced any kind of workout routine prior to taking classes at Hill Street. She’d played on the JV tennis team, and was fiercely devoted to art, photography and creative writing — not exactly pursuits that would seem to align with boxing training. But with a kind of clarity rare for someone her age, Squires summed up what the seemingly different outlets have done for her.
“Art and boxing really let me get all my thoughts out,” she said. “With writing and art, I can put my thoughts on a page, but boxing is another good escape for me.”
Since she started training at Hill Street, Squires said she’s seen a vast improvement in her physical health and fitness, but it’s what her devotion to the gym has done for her on an emotional level that’s made the biggest difference.
“I have anxiety, and when I go [to Hill Street], I never feel anxious,” she said. “I always leave feeling so much better than I do going in.
“It’s cliché, but just getting your anger out on the bag is amazing,” she added, saying that while other forms of working out can give you the adrenaline rush that leads to a mood boost or increase in energy, there is something particularly cathartic about punching a bag, especially when you’ve learned how to do it the right way.
“There’s just something about hitting the bag and punching things as hard as you can that feels so good,” she said, laughing.
This urge isn’t just for the young. Susan Robinson is another devotee of Hill Street Boxing, and came to the gym later in life. Staying in shape was always a priority for Robinson, but it wasn’t until she retired from a high stakes job on Wall Street that the Sag Harbor resident first put on a pair of boxing gloves. Robinson, 63, now spends five days a week at the gym, often taking back-to-back classes.
Boredom proved to be a motivator for Robinson. She needed something that would capture her attention after she retired, particularly because she had never been a “hobbyist.”
“I’m not artistic, and I don’t knit,” she said. “I needed something that would keep me focused mentally.”
Despite being bored with her decades-long routine of yoga, spinning and other more traditional forms of exercise, Robinson was still hesitant to try boxing at first, even though her boyfriend, who had boxed for years, insisted she give it a chance.
“I said, ‘No, good gracious, I’m too old, people would make fun of me and I won’t be able to keep up,’” she recalled. Eventually, she caved. The first class “was the longest hour of my life,” she said, but she didn’t give up, impressed by the level of care the trainers provided, and with the spirit of family and camaraderie that’s been cultivated at the gym. After two months, Robinson said she was in great shape, and enjoying herself.
“It’s just so much fun; it’s the highlight of my day,” she said. “Not only is it amazing as a conditioning exercise, but a lot of it is mental. When you’re punching, you have to think about your stance, and the next punch, and how you’re going to defend. It’s not like getting on a treadmill where you just turn it on and run. You have to think about what’s coming next.”
If Robinson had any initial reservations about taking up a sport where she wasn’t likely to find many peers of the same age or gender, they melted away pretty quickly. She spent her life working in a male-dominated field, and ultimately relished the chance to prove any doubters wrong.
“I’ve always worked in male-dominated industries, and so I’ve always competed in the arena with a lot of men,” she said. “So boxing to me is just kind of a bad ass thing. They certainly don’t expect, when you’re my age, that you’ll be doing two classes back to back five days a week, so it’s very empowering.”
Robinson said it’s also gratifying to see how many women frequent Hill Street, and she’s enjoyed watching them catch the same fever for the sport, particularly someone like Squires.
“It’s so gratifying to see how far Emily has come, because I remember when she first started coming, and she was kind of this shy young girl, and it’s been great to get to know her and see how she’s blossomed. She’s so talented, and when I watch her box, I’m so impressed. And she’s so humble about it. She just gets out here and does it.”
There is mutual admiration between Squires and Robinson, despite their nearly 50-year age gap, and that familial type of bond that boxing has created among them also extends to the trainers who put them through their paces day after day.
Courtney Wach, 27, had been a devotee of kickboxing since she was a teenager, and started working out at Hill Street when she moved to Hampton Bays. Before long, she realized she wanted to pursue a career as a trainer, and earned her certification and then took a job at the gym. The prospect of teaching classes was both exciting and intimidating, she admitted, saying she has never been a fan of public speaking, but Wach gave credit to the family-style environment created by Crocker and Haynia for helping her find her way.
She teaches several classes that both Squires and Robinson take, and said she has been impressed with them both, and adding that they prove the sport is for anyone.
“Everyone should give it a shot,” she said, adding that watching people grow both in terms of boxing skill and physical fitness as well as personally has been rewarding for her. “When you become a trainer, you make personal connections with people and find out their back stories, and you find that a lot of people chose boxing because something drew them to wanting to learn to defend themselves. Being able to help people get through a dark time, whether it was anxiety or being mistreated by someone in the past, it’s really empowering.”
Watching Squires’s growth has been particularly gratifying for Wach, who said she sees similarities between herself at that age and Squires.
“She’s shy and cute and always says please and thank you for everything,” Wach said of Squires. “She’s gone from being so shy to now being one of the most well-known to all the adult clients in the class. She carries herself so well, and she’s someone I’ll use to demonstrate on. She’s not shy anymore; she’s the first to say hello. It really has been awesome to see.”
For her part, Squires said that Wach and the other trainers at the gym have “empowered” her.
“They’ve shaped the person I am, and I’m really grateful to them for that,” she added.
Wach said that, in a similar way, Robinson helped shape who she has become as a trainer still early in her career.
“I really have to thank her, because when I was first becoming a trainer, and I met her and was shadowing another trainer and learning to call out the combinations and learning to project my voice, at the end of the class, she told me, ‘We need more women like you,’” Wach recalled. “I don’t think she understands what that did for me.”
Being part of the Hill Street family has been a lifeline for both trainers and clients alike, especially in the middle of a long pandemic which has people out of sorts and has taken away some of the normal pleasures and routines they rely on. Hill Street Boxing has been able to remain open with mask requirements and smaller class sizes, and all three women expressed how grateful they’ve been for that, especially with what figures to be a long winter having only just begun. To get through it, Squires, Robinson, and Wach will just keep on throwing punches, grateful that they can derive the full satisfaction that comes from knowing how to do it well.
“When you’re working in an environment like Hill Street, and you pay attention to your form so you don’t hurt yourself, when that punch is thrown properly it really smacks the bag,” Robinson said. “There’s this noise it makes that, whatever kind of bad day you’re having, whether it’s something big or small, it’s satisfying.
“Last year, I lost three people who were very close to me,” Robinson continued. “So it was a very tough year, and boxing really was a savior.”