Patrick Finley: A pain no punch can equal

Tucsonan's journey to reach Olympics takes tragic turn
2011-11-12T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T15:43:11Z Patrick Finley: A pain no punch can equalPatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 12, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Sherry Whetten's mind told her body what to do: Throw the combination! Jab! Right! Hit the body! Move! Dance!

She'd been boxing for only five years - since she saw a gym's phone number on a T-shirt at a taco shop while contemplating how to lose weight after giving birth to her daughter - but rose fast.

The onetime volleyball player and gymnast loved the mental game of boxing, the work that went into it. It was, Sherry decided, the only thing in her life that she hadn't half-assed.

And here she was, on Oct. 5, one win from reaching the crazy dream she and her husband made her aim for two years ago, after another child was born and she'd switched gyms and coaches a few times.

Win the fight at the National Police Athletic League Tournament in Toledo, Ohio, and Sherry would reach Olympic qualifiers.

Lose, and the 31-year-old would never have another chance again. By the time the 2016 Games rolled around, she'd be too old to participate.

One fight.

A few punches.

Jab! Right! Hit the body! Move! Dance!

"I couldn't," Sherry said. "I'd throw one punch, and maybe it was at 50 percent.

"And then I'd just stand there."

She couldn't shake the nightmare.

One day earlier, Sherry had won her fight when her opponent lost consciousness, slipping into a coma. Five weeks later, her opponent has yet to wake up.

Headaches, heartache

Sherry had her nose bloodied by Ishika Lay, a Jacksonville Beach, Fla., native who had survived a motorcycle accident and played semi-pro football for fun.

The first round had been pretty even, and the second shaped up that way.

In the 132-pound bout, Sherry threw a straight right at Lay, who moved toward the ropes across the ring.

Lay's eyes were darting side-to-side. It was odd, Sherry thought then. Her legs seemed wobbly.

Sherry stepped toward Lay and began throwing a combination of punches, followed by a left uppercut.

"Her eyes started to shake," Sherry said.

The referee separated the two to neutral corners. Lay kneeled, then fell to the canvas.

Two ring doctors determined she was unconscious. When revived, Lay babbled.

Lay, who is still in a coma, might be suffering from second-impact syndrome, said John M. Phillips, a lawyer hired by Lay's family. If so, her brain would be swollen by receiving a second blow to the head - even a soft one - before being fully recovered from a concussion.

Phillips said Lay had complained of headaches for 10 days leading up to the fight.

Lay was quizzed about any abnormalities in a pre-fight physical and likely did not disclose the headaches to the fight doctor. Her trainer knew of the headaches, Phillips said.

After the fight, Sherry answered questions from the police.

Because her schedule was set back by a few hours, she couldn't use a gym's sauna to help get her weight down. Instead, she ran late into the night in a trash bag, losing three pounds of water.

She wasn't focused on her next day's opponent, Asia Stevenson, a left-hander.

Doctors and police told her Lay's collapse wasn't her fault. It didn't matter.

"It shook all of us up," her coach, Kenneth Ray Mitchell Sr., said.

Sherry tricked herself into thinking she'd be OK.

Then she stepped in the ring, and froze.

"I was trying to get that visual out of my head," Sherry said.

Her Olympic qualifier dream died when she lost by three points to Stevenson.

She called her husband, Clint, with the news, bawling, she said, "like a 6-year-old that loses her Christmas presents."

Sacrifices

Sherry and her family sacrificed more than just money - and it was thousands of dollars - for her opportunity. For four months before the fight, she'd taken her son Cedric, now 3, to Phoenix to train four days per week. Clint stayed in Tucson with Sydnee, now 6.

She fought her first amateur bout in July 2010, and is 8-8.

In August 2010, she quit running her own business, which she started after being laid off by an architectural firm, to focus on boxing.

The hardest part, I imagine, is wondering what might have been.

And being annoyed with Lay, whose life has taken a horrific turn.

"I feel that her sacrificing her integrity cost me my chance to go," Sherry said. "When you have doctor checks, they ask about fevers, headaches. … For her to say no and know that she did, that's hard."

But can she be mad, I asked, at someone in a coma?

"I kind of see the two as independent," she said. "I sacrificed a lot to get here, but that doesn't change the fact I pray fervently for her and her family."

What's sad is the pall it has cast over the sport she loves.

Sherry hasn't stepped into a ring yet, even to spar.

Were it not for her coach or husband, Sherry said, she might have quit by now.

"Right now, I think I'm a little too emotional about it," she said, "but I think I'd walk away."

Her husband wants her to be happy.

"Nothing she did caused this to happen," he said.

Mitchell is hosting a card next week he wants Sherry to fight in. The best outcome, he said, is for her to fight again and "realize it wasn't all her fault."

Her coach thinks she has all the intangibles of a champion - "good jab, good right hand, good movement," he said - and should turn pro.

Sherry's not sure.

Her fight doesn't have a tidy ending.

"I don't have any regrets," she said. "As far as training and working hard, I did. I did everything.

"I would have rather gone and been outclassed than experienced this.

"Now it's just, I don't know."

On StarNet: Check out an audio slideshow with more photos of Sherry Whetten, her craft and her family at azstarnet.com/photo

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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