Five decades and counting

Teaching boxing and life skills an ongoing passion for Sponagle

For 52 years, Wayne Sponagle has been training athletes how to put up their dukes.

The city's longest-serving boxing coach doesn't do it for the money. He knows it usually costs him more than he'll ever get back just to keep the doors open at the Spruce Capital Warriors Boxing Club.

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For four days a week, from 5:15 to 7:15 p.m., Sponagle comes directly from his full-time job as an autobody mechanic to teach the sport he grew up loving in New Glasgow, N.S.

He's the mentor for a group of about 20 boxers aged 14-35. Most come for their nightly workouts to reap the fitness benefits and the confidence that comes with learning how to fight. They might never climb into the ring for a real-life boxing match but under Sponagle's watch, chances are they'll leave the gym as better people.

Spruce Capital, a member of Boxing BC, operates out of a basement workspace next to the JYSK furniture store at Brookwood Plaza on Walls Avenue and the club gets that space rent-free courtesy of Brookwood Properties owner Gary Vale, who told Sponagle it's his gym as long as he wants it.

"People ask me, 'Why do you keep doing it?'" said Sponagle.

"Kids never cease to amaze me and if there's any kid who wants to learn the sport of boxing I want to make sure they get the right start. After a year or two they have the basics, and they tell me, 'We learn about life, Wayne.'

"Most people have no idea what someone like myself does for their kid and how boxing plays an important part in their life, whether they focus on competing or not."

Before he moved to Prince George in 1978, Sponagle was the longtime cornerman for his brother Barry, a two-time Canadian bantamweight pro champion in the early '70s. Wayne started the East-West Boxing Club in Prince George and came over to Spruce Capital when he moved back to the city in 1992 and has been part of the club ever since.

He's trained the likes of Thomas Speirs, Marcus Hume, Laurie Mann, Allan Bayne, Todd Hatley and his own son George to national and international success and in 2010 was inducted into the Prince George Sports Hall of Fame.

Sponagle says he has one young boxer - Brody Beetlestone - showing plenty of promise and drive but he's seeing fewer and fewer boxers in his gym willing to commit the time, training and travelling it takes to become regulars on the provincial scene, fighting their way to the top so they can take that next step to the national level. In fact, he says he hasn't seen anyone with that kind of dedication since Speirs and Hume used their Spruce Capital training as a springboard to consecutive years as national contenders and an eventual break into the world of pro boxing.

Some nights there are only three or four bodies lacing up their gloves. Other nights he'll have 14 or 15 boxers working the speed bags, skipping rope or sparring in the ring.

"It fluctuates - some kids you see them two or three days in a row and then you don't see them for three weeks," he said.

"Thomas and Marcus were the last two that really got into it, they got you excited because of their enthusiasm. For the first time in my life it's becoming a chore to go to the gym. I'm thinking about my only great-grandchild and spending more time with him."

Sponagle turns 73 at the end of the month. He had quadruple heart bypass surgery four years ago, just after Speirs and Hume had their last pro fights. Speirs now works as a roofer in Prince George and just bought and renovated his own house and Hume has also found success as a tradesman, now working in Calgary as a bricklayer. Both are hard workers, just like they were in the boxing ring, and Sponagle says there's no denying the lessons they learned in the ring shaped that work ethic.

"Boxing played such an important role in their lives and it helped them get to where they are," Sponagle said. "It gave them the tools."

The local sporting community is saddened by the news that longtime local boxing coach Betty Clark died Tuesday during emergency surgery. Clark, a Level 5 coach, took over the club after Sponagle left in 1988, when he moved back to Nova Scotia. She renamed it Shaolin Boxing Club and also oversaw Cobra Kickboxing, both based at the Connnaught Youth Centre.

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