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Spreading his wings

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[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Jeff Lacy gets into the Olympic spirit during a recent visit to Busch Gardens in Tampa, posing with Miki, a Rose-breasted cockatoo that is native to Australia.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 2000


He began by tracing his father's footsteps. Now, Jeff Lacy has stepped well beyond that path and into a world his father never knew. But the St. Petersburg boxer will not be walking alone. As the Olympics begin in Australia, Lacy will be carrying his father's dreams with him.

Their stories differ somewhat. Jeff Lacy recalls that he was sent to the St. Petersburg Boxing Club as a punishment by his father after getting into an elementary school fight. Hydra Lacy says his son never needed prodding when it came to showing up at the gym.

The father did what he could to quash his son's dreams. And when that didn't work, he did what he could to make the dreams come true.

At 23, Jeff Lacy is an Olympic boxer. He qualified as a middleweight at events in Tampa and Connecticut in the spring and has spent the past six months traveling the country for camps and dual meets with the U.S. team.

"I used to tell him, "Boy, this ain't no jive game. It's a dangerous game. It's a bad game.' I thought he was going to quit a couple of times, but he just kept coming back and coming back," Hydra Lacy said. "That's when I told him if he kept himself in good shape and good condition he could go places."

Hydra Lacy kept the lessons generic, but he could have let his son in on his own secrets. Jeff knew his dad had been a boxer too, but little else about the career that ended years before the son was born.

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[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Hydra Lacy congratulates his son after the victory that earned Jeff a berth on the Olympic team.
Hydra once had visions of being an Olympic boxer too. He fought in the Olympic trials in 1968 in Trenton, N.J., but lost in the final. He became a professional boxer living in St. Petersburg in the late '60s and early '70s and compiled a 13-4-1 record while traveling to Miami, Atlanta and other cities to fight on undercards.

"I found out in a hurry if you're going to fight, you must be in shape. A lot of times, I wasn't in the shape I should have been in," Hydra said. "I believe I had a chance to go to the top. But I was doing too much playing around and trying to fight too and it just didn't work."

These were mistakes that were not going to be repeated by Jeff. Not with Hydra around the gym working daily with his son and other boxers. From the time Jeff was 10 years old, his father would drill it into his head that he had to work harder, be stronger, be in better shape than the other boxers.

"My dad would tell me I was to small to do this, to do that. He would let me come to the gym, but he would never let me compete," said Jeff, the middle of nine children in the family. "That's the way he pushed me. He would tell me I was too small so I worked hard to get stronger. I always wanted to be stronger than anyone I was in against."

Whether his talent has been aided by the grace of birth or whether it was strictly cultivated in the gym is hard to say, but Lacy's punching power is now legendary in the amateur ranks.

At a Colorado Springs training camp, his punches were measured with a special punching bag that determines the force of a blow. Lacy recorded a 700 on the machine. According to USA Boxing, not even a heavyweight has ever scored higher than a 600 on the bag.

Because of his punching power, there have been whispers in boxing circles that Lacy would be better served as a pro instead of as an amateur where technical skills are more valued than strength.

When he lost at the Olympic trials in 1996, Lacy was encouraged by several advisers to turn pro. He resisted, instead taking a year away from the ring to figure out what to do with his career. He later severed ties with those coaches and worked on his own for more than a year.

"I was so disappointed in not winning in the qualifier, I didn't know what to do. The next Olympics were four years down the road and I sat back thinking that was a long time to wait," Lacy said. "That time off was good thinking time for me. I was trying to find myself and see what I really wanted to do.

"I decided boxing was something I knew I could do. I didn't want to give up on it. I could have turned pro but, once you do that, you can't turn back. One of my dreams was the Olympics, and I decided I was going to stick with that."

Lacy, who has been working as a clerk at a Tampa law firm, became the national champion in 1998 and was runner up in '99. He won at the 2000 Olympic trials in Tampa and then won a box-off against Arthur Palac a month later, scoring a point in the final 30 seconds of the bout for the victory.

"It's like all of my dreams have been coming true all at once," Lacy said. "I walk around in a daze sometimes. I'm mellow, like I'm numb. It's a good feeling but it's a little creepy that it's getting around the corner. I was thinking about this 13 years ago. Now it's down to three months, to two months, to one month. But I am ready."

Life is moving quickly for Lacy these days. He recently purchased a house in the Lakewood area of St. Petersburg and has furnished it in early pugilism, with a near life-sized autographed portrait of Sugar Ray Leonard on the living room wall. He has been working with Las Vegas trainer Andy Anderson for about two years and expects to turn pro after the Olympics.

He also has spent a fair share of time reflecting on what it took for him to reach this point. Lacy gave up other sports at an early age to concentrate on boxing and he spent every spare moment hanging around gyms.

His father has not been his coach for some time now, but Hydra's original lessons still guide Lacy's journey. The son will sometimes stop by his father's house and listen as Hydra drones on about the value of road work and staying in shape.

"Boxing is in my blood. My dad knew what he was doing when he took me down to the gym. He turned me out to be an Olympian," Jeff said. "He hardly ever talked about his own career, every now and then he'd make a comment about it, maybe tell me what he would have done to me.

"I never saw him box. I would have love to see how my dad performed in the ring because I'd like to see how I match up to him."

Hydra already knows.

"I was good. I was good," Hydra said. "But he's better than me."

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