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Girl power: Woman in the ring

When Stephanie Koljonen stepped into the ring on Jan. 13 at the Fergus Falls Armory, all she saw was the rope and her opponent, Marie Roggenkamp of Fergus Falls. Sometimes she heard the roar of the crowd, she said. Sometimes she was too focused to hear anything.

"You're just focusing on your coach and the ring and the girl," she said. "You're just looking at her and wanting to fight her."

Koljonen's second amateur boxing bout almost ended in defeat when she was knocked out in the first round by Roggenkamp and eight-counted. She was awake by the time she hit the floor and didn't stay down for long.

"I wasn't going to give up," she said. "I felt fine. I wasn't going to let her win. Then I started getting on her."

Koljonen scored a standing eight-count against Roggenkamp in the second and third round, winning a unanimous decision.

While Koljonen's experience in the ring is limited and consists of two matches, she is enthusiastic about her chosen sport. She has overcome some challenges to compete in Golden Gloves Amateur Boxing. Family disapproval, a bout of teenage rebellion and the difficulty of finding female opponents have all presented obstacles to Koljonen's boxing development.

Koljonen's interest in boxing began three years ago when she attended a match with some friends.

"When I walked out I was like 'oh, I want to do that,'" Koljonen recalled. "I've always been ... a tomboy, so it's not a surprise."

Koljonen is one of several female boxers in Wadena.

She started boxing in October 2005. The predominately male club sparring and sweating on Monday and Wednesday nights at the Wadena Armory have welcomed her into the fighting fold, according to Koljonen.

"They treat me like one of the guys," she said.

Koljonen said some family members, however, are not happy with her boxing.

"My grandpa and all those guys [they say] 'no, your face, you're so pretty, you're going to be dumber than a doornail," she said.

Koljonen's mother, Diane Vry, was also not enthusiastic about her decision to box.

"I don't like boxing," Vry said. "I don't think it's a sport. It's brutal."

She described her daughter as soft-hearted, but competitive.

She encouraged Koljonen to become a cheerleader, she said. But she knows Koljonen likes to do things that are different and try new things.

Even though parents don't agree with all the choices their kids make, it's still important to support them, Vry said.

"I try to be there at her matches and holler and yell for her," she said.

While Vry has decided to support Koljonen's boxing, she did not support some other decisions her daughter made last year, she said. She made her quit boxing until she corrected her behavior.

"She had to earn her right to be there," she explained.

Her daughter did improve her behavior and rejoined boxing this October, she said. Koljonen's boxing coach, Bob Tubandt, was an important influence.

"Bob has always supported what I've said and done," Vry said.

Koljonen describes Tubandt as "the best coach ever."

"He's awesome," she said. "He never says anything negative. He always encourages you."

Tubandt emphasizes sportsmanship and conditioning in his training, he said. Twice a week boxers put in a two-hour workout at the armory consisting of pushups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, windmills, skipping rope, shadowboxing, punching hands, hitting the heaving bag and throwing the medicine ball. They also do a regular work out at home.

Koljonen makes it to practice regularly, he said.

"She's not afraid to work out," Tubandt said.

Koljonen showed real drive during her Jan. 13 bout with Roggenkamp, Tubandt said. She got knocked down but she won the fight.

"That's what this sport is all about," he said.

While female boxers are not a new phenomenon, finding opponents in the right age and weight category isn't always easy. Tubandt said he was not able to find an opponent for the Jan. 20 boxing bouts at the Armory.

Koljonen had to cheer with the crowd.

But she enjoys being a fan, she said. She likes to watch matches in person.

"I like intense ones if there's action the whole time," she said. "I want to see the action. I want to see moving, I want to see jabs, combos and all that stuff."

She can't sit down when she's watching a live match, she said. She has to stand up and cheer for the boxers.

Vry wasn't able to join the cheering crowd for her daughter's first match, but she was able to see her comeback performance against Roggenkamp.

Seeing her daughter in the ring didn't quite match her expectations.

"It wasn't as scary as I thought it would be," she said. "I thought I'd be more nervous for her."

Koljonen thinks her mother has become more interested in boxing since watching her compete on Jan. 13, she said. She appreciates her mother's support.

"She was there for me, one of my fans," she said. "She gave me a hug. She talks to me more about it now."

It's important for parents to be there for their kids, Vry said. It does make a difference.

Koljonen won't be living at home for long.

She is relatively new to boxing, although she is a senior in high school. Her approaching graduation and college plans to major in law enforcement or nursing will take her away from Wadena and her regular practices with Tubandt and the Golden Gloves boxers.

She would like to attend a good college in Minneapolis or the Fargo-Moorhead area so that she can still do some boxing and attend matches.

"I want to stay in it," Koljonen said. "I'll come back when I can because I want to do it here with Bob," she said.

Koljonen loves the fun and excitement of boxing, she said. She also appreciates what she's learned from her coach and her matches.

"I guess I'm a lot tougher than I thought," she said. "I don't back down. I'm going to get up and I'm going to go back in there and win."