Aug. 2, 2022 By Michael Dorgan
A Woodside man who has been blind for most of his life is inspiring members at a local boxing gym to up their game.
Justin Rivera, 30, has been training at Supreme Team Boxing, located at 34-09 Queens Blvd., since late 2019 and has learned how to box regardless of being visually impaired.
Rivera developed a rare cancer in his eyes when he was aged 1 and by age 9 he was almost completely blind. He can see shadows from his left eye but nothing out of his right eye, he said.
Rivera was in poor physical condition and weighed around 315 pounds before he decided to join the gym at the urging of his mother, according to coach Nelson Maldonado, who owns the 4,000-square-foot establishment.
Maldonado said Rivera has lost around 40 pounds in the last two and a half years and his overall health has been transformed.
“He was very stressed, he had high cholesterol and was in bad shape,” said Maldonado, who has trained former world champions Shannon Briggs and Maricela Cornejo in the past.
“Justin has built a lot of confidence and his mother told me this has changed his life.”
Rivera has been doing a program of cardio, bodyweight exercises and boxing with Maldonado and coach Michelle Johantgen at the gym. He can also use a skipping rope unassisted.
Maldonado says that Rivera trains exceptionally hard when he’s at the gym. His attitude and application to training have given members there a massive lift, Maldonado said.
“People are amazed by Justin, he has learned so much,” Maldonado said. “Members think they can do better when they see him train and so they push themselves even more.”
“He’s an inspiration to everybody really, not just those with disabilities.”
Coaches Maldonado and Johantgen have homed in on Rivera’s other senses in order to teach him how to box and spar. They concentrate on sound via instructions as well as movement and body position, which are respectively known as the vestibular and proprioception senses.
“Boxing is just like music, it’s all rhythm… Justin has learned a lot with his senses,” Maldonado said.
They have also focused heavily on Rivera’s foot movement so he can create angles, gauge distance, and determine when to punch or block, Maldonado said.
“Justin trains exactly like everyone else at the gym,” Maldonado said. “He has good speed and hits the bag really well.”
He is also able to wrap his hands with tape on his own, which Maldonado said is a very difficult task for everyday boxers.
Maldonado said gym members also drew inspiration from Rivera’s heroics in September 2021 when he rescued his mother from their basement during Hurricane Ida. His mother got trapped in the basement as it filled up with water, but Justin managed to pull her out to safety via a small window.
Meanwhile, Rivera is quite modest when it comes to people singing his praises but said he is really enjoying his experience at the gym.
“It’s a little difficult but nothing I probably can’t find a workaround,” Rivera said.
Rivera said he has done some martial arts training in the past which has given him a good foundation to learn the skills of boxing.
“The stances are a bit different, and the movements are a bit unnatural, but I’ve gotten used to them,” Rivera said.” “There’s also a lot of spacial awareness I need to employ.”
Rivera said he joined Supreme Team Boxing to get fit but also to learn how to defend himself.
“I didn’t think could throw a punch effectively and I wanted to be better at fighting,” Rivera said.
“I just want to be better overall, tougher, stronger and to move better.”
“I like beating my own records in the gym, it’s not a decision I’ve regretted.”