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Fighting for a Cause: Baraka Bouts senior captains reminisce on their time in the ring

| Monday, November 8, 2021

Founded in 1997, Baraka Bouts is an all-female boxing club started by a group of motivated women looking to combine values of service with athletic ability. Now the largest all-female club at Notre Dame, the Bouts’ season runs from September to November and culminates in an annual boxing tournament in which members compete against one another. All proceeds from the tournament and subsequent fundraising go toward helping schools in Uganda. 

“Our charity stems from the Holy Cross missions in Uganda. There are two co-ed private schools, Lakeview and Saint Joseph’s Hill, that we benefit through raising money for our missions,” senior captain Margaret Roccato said. “We first established this connection through Holy Cross priests who work there and have connections with Notre Dame.”

With over 250 women signed up on IMLeagues and 65 women competing in the tournament, there has been a tremendous effort to fundraise for the Holy Cross Missions in East Africa. Baraka Bouts team members have utilized Mobile Cause, a fundraising page in which each competing boxer has her own page linked to the main screen. Ticket proceeds and all other money spent at the tournament go directly to the missions.

“The tournament is a huge fundraising opportunity for us and we are looking for that last push to hit our goal this year,” senior captain Megan Voigt said. “We put our club funds into running it so that everything goes toward the missions.”

With a goal of raising $75,000 this year, this charity is at the core of Baraka Bouts’ mission. All 2021 proceeds will be donated directly toward building faculty and staff housing for those employed at the Ugandan schools. Eight practices a week and early morning spars are all for the goal of benefitting this mission, and it is truly why these women fight.

“The money that is raised by all the boxers is very real,” senior captain Cameron Dowd said. “Sometimes when people think of fundraising, they feel like they don’t know where the money goes. This isn’t the case with us at all. We get to see buildings being built and get sent pictures of the progress, so it’s really tangible for us to see what’s going on.”

Coming off of a tournament-less year due to COVID-19, the Baraka Bouts team is ready to step back into the ring as they begin their 8-9 bracket tournament series on November 8th. In addition to Roccato, Voigt and Dowd, the senior captains this year include Karen Alvarez, Mia Lecinski and Abby Leone. They have been working hard to lead practices and teach both the technical and mental skills associated with boxing. 

Read about each of the captains and their experiences over the years below, and watch them out in action on November 8, 11 and 15 at 7 p.m. in Dahnke Ballroom in Duncan Student Center. 

According to Mia Lecinski, “Technically we are the biggest amateur female boxing league in the world. That’s just a little fun fact about us.”

Karen Alvarez     

A senior from Florida and formerly in Cavanaugh Hall, Alvarez has been a part of Baraka Bouts for three years. Though she initially joined as a way to stay active, the club ended up instilling her with a sense of empowerment beyond what she ever would have expected.  

“I tried out a spar after getting convinced,” Alvarez said. “My first spar I actually ended up crying because I was stressed and overwhelmed and not ready to get hit in the face. This pushed me to work really hard, and I got very close to my corner who was with me during the entire bouts and I was able to win with her.”

Alvarez found this relationship with her corner to be an integral part of her time in Baraka Bouts. Now that she is a captain, she has found ways to pay this support forward to the novice boxers she helps to train. After getting mildly concussed at the beginning of the season and unable to do many of the workouts, Alvarez frequently took on the role as a corner. One specific incident this year reminded her a lot of herself during her first spar. 

“There was one [woman] specifically that just cried since she was overwhelmed,” Alvarez said. “I did the same thing my corner had done for me and worked with her for a while. I could tell that I made a difference, and it really meant a lot for me since someone did that for me and I was able to pay it forward. This is a big part of the club. We are doing things not for ourselves but for the kids in Uganda.”

Overall, Alvarez has enjoyed her time as captain. The support from the other nine women in the role has allowed her to be an effective leader while also preserving her mental and physical well being.

“It’s so much fun being a captain and being surrounded by nine other super badass, empowering women,” Alvarez said. “There’s ten of us for a reason. It’s okay to take time for yourself and realize that you can take care of yourself despite being a captain. If anything is wrong with someone else, we can help pick it up for them and make it even.”

Outside of the ring, Alvarez studies chemical engineering in Notre Dame’s College of Engineering.

Cameron (Cam) Dowd    

Coming from just outside of Boston, Massachusetts and formerly in Badin Hall, Dowd got involved with Baraka after her roommate’s older sister had a positive experience with the club. Upon joining sophomore year, Dowd was unable to do a pushup without using her knees and remarks that she had little physical strength. However, midway through the season on the team’s annual 200 burpee day, she was pleasantly surprised with herself and her abilities.

“When it was 200-burpee day that season I could do the majority of it,” Dowd said. “I ended up having to use my knees at the end but that didn’t matter to me. The fact I felt so mentally and physically strong made me proud. That moment is one I have carried with me throughout.” 

Flash forward to her senior year, and Dowd is one of ten captains leading the team. She cites the bonds she has made with her teammates and her role as a mentor as her favorite parts about leading the team. 

“Being a captain this year has been incredibly rewarding,” Dowd said. “It’s a different kind of friendship when you are boxing together: it’s super empowering. I just really loved being in a mentor role to the novice boxers this year and talking down nerves.” 

Dowd has also been touched by the passion present among each of the boxers at each practice. Whether early in the morning or after a long day of classes, this drive and respect for the art of boxing has inspired Dowd to have the same level of intensity. A specific moment sticks out in her mind where she realized this. 

“We do a callout where everyone is lined up in the gym and calls out punches,” Dowd said. “When I first joined I almost felt silly, but this changed so quickly. I looked around and everyone was so focused and so into it. I had never seen that many women so strong, so committed to something and so motivated to do something such as box, which is such a badass thing to do as a woman.”

Outside the ring, Dowd studies anthropology and psychology in the College of Arts and Letters.

Mia Lecinski   

Going on her third year of boxing, Lecinski hails from just outside of Chicago, Illinois. She lived in Lyons Hall while on campus. Despite joining sophomore year, some of her favorite memories are from moments that occurred this year as captain.

“My favorite memory has honestly been cornering from this season,” Lecinski said. “Me and Mags were both tag-teaming cornering and hyped people up the whole hour. Just in general, that experience has been really fulfilling.”

She also enjoys the mentoring aspect that comes with being a captain. Lecinski thrives in helping to instill confidence in women, that she has struggled with herself.

“I had all these moments throughout the season where I wondered why I never said these empowering things to myself when I’m boxing,” Lecinski said. “We get just as much out of it as the [other women] do.”

A fan of morning practice, Lecinski values the tight-knight group of women she spends two or more hours a day with.

“Personally I’m a big fan of morning practice. I like a small little crew. You woke up at 6:30 am for a club. No one is making you do this, and you wanted to get a little better before everyone else woke up.”

To Lecinski, Baraka Bouts is about more than just boxing. In addition to the service component of the club, Lecinski values the personal growth being a member can create. 

“It sounds so strange but I feel like boxing is one of the purest forms of self-love out there. You have to be able to be in a ring with someone who is punching you. You have to stand there and believe you can win, which is not easy to do at all. If you can tell yourself you’re going to be fine as long as you believe, that’s all you need. That’s a component of female empowerment, and the club helps with that a lot.”

Abby Leone 

Originally from White Plans, New York and living in Howard while she was on-campus, Leone joined Baraka Bouts sophomore year. She stumbled upon it with a group of women from her dorm one day. The club quickly became an important part of her life. She looks back fondly on the times where she was able to internalize the club’s mission and truly tell people what Baraka is all about. 

“One of my favorite memories was one of my first fun runs my sophomore year,” Leone said. “We were running around campus all dressed in patriotic gear and yelling about our missions. There are so many elements of what we do that people found so interesting, and being able to share these things with people around campus was super cool. I felt like I was more part of the club since I could explain our missions and knew what we were about.” 

Leone also appreciates the structure of Baraka Bouts. She likes how the nature of the club allows for both physical and mental improvement.

“The club itself and the way it’s structured is centered on female empowerment and supporting our great charity cause is such a cool dynamic,” Leone said. “Over the season, you feel your body and your mind get so much stronger. There are obviously times where there is a little bit of self-doubt and that’s where the community aspect really comes in. It’s just a rewarding thing to look back and see how far you’ve come not only physically, but also mentally.” 

Outside of the ring, Leone studies computer science in Notre Dame’s College of Engineering. 

Margaret (Mags) Roccato 

Born in Moorestown, New Jersey, Roccato has been a member of Baraka Bouts since her sophomore year. Roccato previously lived in Walsh Hall but is now off-campus. Throughout her time in the club, she has valued the friendships she has made and found comfort in the tremendous support that exists amongst her teammates. She often thinks about what impact this support would have had on her younger self.

“I wish I could go back and coach my sophomore year self and tell her what I tell my girls. Think of all the work, all the hours, all the exercises and everything you’ve done this season. It’s all led you up to that point. This is what I tell all the girls that are in my corner.”

These women are certainly nothing short of hardworking. Roccato continually feels empowered when she sees young girls find their place in the ring and carry this confidence out into other aspects of their life. 

“There are some badass women in that ring — they could take most of the guys, I’m sure. You have a little community of your people who maybe you have a special connection with. It makes me feel empowered to see a younger version of themselves growing in this, finding themselves and getting stronger.”

Though some may think of boxing as an individual sport, Roccato emphasizes that women’s boxing, specifically Baraka Bouts, is a team sport through and through. 

“We always talk about how we are a team sport for a reason because we are this community. Yes, we compete against one another, but it’s always for the betterment of the other person. Baraka means “blessing” in Swahili, and it’s a gift to be able to do this. We don’t HAVE to do this, we GET to do this.”

Outside of the ring, Roccato studies biochemistry in the Notre Dame College of Science. She has a second major in anthropology in the College of Arts and Letters.

Megan Voigt

Formerly in Howard Hall and originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Voigt joined Baraka Bouts her sophomore year and has stuck with it ever since.

“I was also part of that sophomore group of Howard [women] with Abby,” Voigt said. “I decided to give it a try and just couldn’t stay away after seeing the environment. Watching the passion and motivation of everyone involved in the club is such an inspiring thing to be around.”

Something that has been most impactful to Voigt is the lesson she’s learned about her character and all that she can handle as a woman. These small, personal victories are what have kept her invested in Baraka Bouts for over half of her collegiate career.

“You do things you never thought you could do,” Voigt said. “Whether that’s the physical challenge of getting ready for a tough workout or the emotional battle of getting in the ring, these are all situations that you get through. You go home after practice each day just amazed by what you accomplished in two hours.” 

These accomplishments are also accompanied by the feeling of familial support that many of the other captains emphasized. Though members fight one another in the ring at the season-culminating tournament, this spirit of generosity is present win-or-lose. Voigt had a moment where this particularly rang true her first year of boxing.

“My sophomore year, a [woman] who I went against at one point ended up subbing in and being my corner in the next round,” Voigt said. “She didn’t have to do that, but she talked me through the next round which shows how supportive of a community it really is.”

As a captain, Voigt has been impressed by her fellow captain’s leadership abilities. Especially, their willingness to collaborate and problem-solve in order to navigate uncertain circumstances. 

“Watching all of us step up in different ways and be leaders has been very special. We’ve been very adaptable and at no point has anyone pointed fingers at one another. I think it’s made for a very successful season so far, and we are looking forward to the tournament.” 

Outside of the ring, Voigt is an economics and psychology major in Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters.

About Madeline Ladd

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