These are the neighbors who feel most alive when their heartbeats rise, when drops of sweat cluster at their temples, when they’re pushing their bodies to new limits. They have different motivations propelling them forward, but whether they swim or box or golf, it’s all about drive. So lace up, stretch out and read up on how fitness changed these local athletes’ lives.
Though he’s only 5-feet-5, Jesús Chávez is known in certain circles as “El Matador” or “The Killer.” It’s an appropriate name for a boxer, especially one of his caliber. During Chávez’s career as a lightweight fighter, he won 44 of 52 matches and garnered two world titles. But his rise to glory was far from smooth.
In the summer of 1990, when Chávez was 16 years old, he was arrested for armed robbery. He says he was an accomplice mixed up in the wrong crowd. It was his first offense, but he spent the next four years behind bars.
“When I was there I swore I was never going back to a prison or a jail cell,” he says. “But I knew about my immigration problem.”
The “problem” was that Chávez’s family moved from Chihuahua, Mexico to the United States when he was a child. They had been granted amnesty, but Chávez’s arrest meant he’d violated the terms of his immigration status. At the end of his sentence, he was immediately deported.
“There I was, with $50 in my pocket, in a place where I had never been — Mexico City,” he remembers. “I basically hitchhiked my way back to Chihuahua and lived with my grandparents.”
Mexico was unfamiliar to Chávez. The United States was the only home he knew. After a couple months he “walked straight through the line,” boarded a plane and flew to Illinois. He says it was easy, probably because his English was perfect.
Chicago proved difficult. Chávez got calls from former friends who had become bad influences. Not wanting to get embroiled back in crime, he decided, at the suggestion of his father, to move to Austin, Texas.
It was there that he met Richard Lord, who owned a local boxing gym. Lord recognized Chávez’s talent and let him train and live in the facility. Pretty soon he had a promoter and was fighting against some of the biggest names in the industry.
But then he applied for a driver’s license.
“I didn’t have the right documentation,” he explains. “The only reason they didn’t deport me right away was I had a major promotional contract in the US so I was conducting business here.”
Eventually, Chávez voluntarily deported himself. He figured he’d be in Mexico for six months tops. He was there for four years. During that time, he prepared for a fight against Julio Alvarez, one of Mexico’s top boxers. The men were friends but things turned ugly before the fight.
“His supporters paid off the chef where I used to eat,” Chávez says. “I was getting stomachaches and had to postpone the fight … They were putting barbiturates in my food.”
The foul play was documented in “Split Decision,” a 2002 film that chronicles Chávez’s struggle to return to the United States.
“I agreed to do [the documentary] for educational purposes,” he explains. “It’s educational for a lot of different people, like at risk kids, and it has a lot of good information regarding immigration law.”
Chávez won his match against Alvarez. He says it was the only time in his career he was “intentionally trying to hurt someone in the sport of boxing.”
Then, in 2001, he secured an even greater victory. With the help of his attorney, he was allowed to return to Austin — this time, legally.
After four years of relative peace, his world would come crashing down again.
On Sept. 17, 2005 he fought Leavander Johnson, for the lightweight world title. Chávez won. But after leaving the ring, Johnson collapsed in the locker room, and later died from a brain injury received during the fight.
“I felt horrible,” Chávez says, tearing up. “I blamed myself for a long time. The only people who could help me get out of that rut were [Leavander’s] family. They asked me to come to the funeral. I agreed and I flew out there. They understood the risks and they said, ‘Keep fighting. Do it for Leavander.’”
Chávez kept fighting another four years, but he also began exploring other interests. He volunteered with the Austin Police Department, teaching boxing to at-risk kids, and developed a passion for social work. In 2010, he met Arnie Verbeek, the Preston Hollow resident who owns Maple Avenue Boxing Gym, now located near our neighborhood off Inwood Road. The two became close.
Verbeek offered Chávez a job managing the facility, so he moved to Dallas. That’s how he discovered Café Momentum, a nonprofit restaurant that provides culinary training to teens who have served time in juvenile detention facilities. Chávez couldn’t resist putting in an application. He was hired immediately and now works as a case manager.
“The kids I work with are all really good kids in bad situations,” he says. “They ask me about my past. Some have seen the documentary and it’s interesting to them. They say, ‘You must have made a lot of money.’ They think I’m rich.”
Chávez tells them he’s experienced extreme highs and extreme lows and advises them to stay out of trouble and pursue their passions. He can’t imagine where he’d be without boxing.
“After all of the hardship — the incarceration, the deportation — I know I was great at something,” he says. “I was one of the best in the world. Not many people can say that.”
You’d think Cathy Marino, the head golf coach at Jesuit Preparatory School, would be tired of fielding questions about Jordan Spieth but she’s not.
“I love talking about Jordan,” she says. “He’s a special player and a special person also.”
Marino met Spieth in 2005, when he was a freshman at Jesuit. She says she’s “not at all” surprised by his immense success.
“Right from the start he shot super low scores and was an amazing player,” she remembers. “I knew he was going to do this. He’s always done amazing things on the golf course.”
Marino has done some “amazing things” herself. From 1983 to 1993, she held a Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour Card. During that ten year period, she traveled all over the world —Japan, England, Ireland, Canada, the list goes on. She finished second three times — once in 1984 at the United Virginia Bank Classic, once in 1988 at the Konica San Jose Classic and again in 1989 at the Boston Five Classic. According to LPGA.com, her career earnings totaled $389,897. Marino probably wouldn’t tell you this herself. She’s modest in a way that seems authentic rather than artificial. Before sharing stories about her time as a professional golfer she’s prone to saying, “I don’t want to bore you,” which seems comical, considering her life has been much more glamorous than most.
When she stopped playing professionally, Marino worked for a few years as the head golf coach at her alma mater, Southern Methodist University, where she was named SMU Senior Female Athlete of the Year in 1983. She resigned from that position and took the job at Jesuit 11 years ago, so she could spend more time with her children.
Being the head golf coach at an all male school could easily turn awkward, but Marino is used to being the only woman in a room full of men.
“When I played high school golf in Palos Verdes Estates [California] they didn’t have a girls’ team,” she explains. “I played on a boys’ team and my high school coach got a big kick out of it.”
According to Marino, the male coaches at Jesuit couldn’t be more welcoming but she admits things can “get interesting” at tournaments.
“They’ll sometimes start by saying something like, ‘Gentlemen, here we are at our meeting’ and I’m like, ‘Umm, excuse me,’ ” she quips. “I just laugh at it mostly. It brings back memories. That experience [of playing on the boys’ team in high school] kind of helped me.”
Although she’s usually in the minority, Marino has met plenty of women who share her passion for golf. Her inner circle includes people like Juli Inkster, who was the Team USA Captain at last year’s Solheim Cup.
“She asked me to be one of her helpers,” Marino says. “I got to go to Germany with my daughter and it was super fun.”
Marino has clearly been exposed to a lot of talent, so she’s good at recognizing it in her students. When one of her pupils excels, she lets him know. Positive reinforcement is an essential part of her coaching philosophy.
“My main job is to encourage people and make everyone feel good about themselves,” she says. Creating good vibes is something Marino enjoys thoroughly: “I’m really lucky to be able to do this.”
Jim Montgomery is still blown away by the fact that he won three gold medals and one bronze at the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada. That’s mostly because the Preston Hollow resident, who competed in freestyle swim events, is the only person in his family with serious athletic ambition.
“My dad might have run cross country,” he says without confidence. “I was pretty much self motivated. I really enjoyed it.”
Montgomery played lots of different sports growing up, but decided to pursue swimming exclusively at age 14 per a coach’s encouragement. He still swims twice a week, but these days he is more interested in getting other people in the water. Ten years ago, he started dreaming about opening a school of his own.
“I went to the national conference for the United States Swim School Association,” he explains. “I’m used to being on the competitive side, but I realized [the instructors] are the real professionals.”
That thought inspired Montgomery to take a self-guided tour of pools around the country. Checking out the aquatics facilities in places like Arizona, Iowa, California and Wisconsin, where he was raised, filled him with ideas. His excitement eventually became too intense to ignore.
“I resigned [as the head swim coach of Greenhill School] after 17 years to dedicate my time to this,” he says, referring to the Jim Montgomery Swim School, which opened on Preston Road in December. “I knew I was going to miss coaching the kids, but this was the step to take. When opportunity knocks you go through the door.”
This new business venture is something of a family affair. Montgomery’s wife, Diane, designed the school’s bright, inviting interior and his daughter, Ellis, heads its early childhood division. Within the first three weeks of being open, the school had more than 100 students and that number is only growing — luckily, there are 14 instructors on staff.
Montgomery is particularly interested in helping adults overcome their fear of water.
“The water is so much fun if you let it be,” he says. “So many people come and say, ‘I’m watching my kids have fun in the water but I can’t get in with them.’ They all have a story of why they are terrified. Something traumatic like, ‘Uncle Fred threw me in the lake and said ‘start swimming.’ Or maybe their parents were scared and they passed that fear onto them.”
Few people are more comfortable in the water than Montgomery. He enjoys swimming in the ocean, and since his career has taken him “all over the world,” he’s had plenty of opportunities to just that.
“I’ve seen a couple sharks under water,” he says casually. “They’re more afraid of me than I am of them … They’re mostly just curious.”
In addition to being brave, Montgomery is highly motivated and possesses an entrepreneurial spirit, which he thinks comes with being a professional athlete.
“I just go, go, go, go,” he says. “I don’t have hours, I just do it. I guess that’s what entrepreneurs do. They don’t keep a clock. I’m conditioned to be goal oriented — go for this go for that — my whole life it’s been about timing and goals. How fast can you go on a stopwatch?”