While Andrea Nelson doesn’t advertise her life story to her boxers, she doesn’t hide from it, either.
If they ask questions, she’ll answer. The way Nelson sees it, it’s the least she could do for people who often are leaving themselves vulnerable while pursuing a sport that is challenging both physically and mentally.
“That’s what kind of drew me to her was how transparent she was,” said Briana Che, who trained under Nelson at both Ford’s Gym and Nelson’s home gym on Madison’s West Side. “It was almost no filter from the beginning. Me seeing that she was so willing to share that stuff with me and trust me with that information made me trust her more, not only as a coach but as a friend.”
Nelson, 54, is the president of the Bob Lynch Boxing Foundation, which is running the Wisconsin Golden Gloves state tournament that begins Friday at the Marriott West in Middleton.
She was a boxer herself before going into coaching, training under Lynch during an amateur and professional career. The sport helped turn around her life to the point where she’s now making an impact on the boxers she coaches, the same way Lynch did for her.
“She’s resilient,” Che said. “She’s lived life — the good, the bad, the rough.”
Nelson is sitting outside her home on a hot morning earlier this month, trying to find shade. The property is full of life, with fruit trees, a massive garden and even chickens.
Nelson acknowledges she struggled with drugs and alcohol while growing up in Madison and, at 13, was sent to reform school. She got out and began living with her boyfriend and his single mother, but Nelson’s off-and-on relationship with him was rocky and eventually turned abusive by the time she’d reached adulthood.
She’d leave and go back to him, a cycle that finally ended when the man was convicted for armed robbery and sent to prison. For years, she tried to get away from him, but he tracked her down. “Now,” she said, “all I had to do was not answer the phone.”
Nelson began hanging out with biker clubs and she started dating another man. The relationship fizzled but not before Nelson had a daughter named Shyloh. “My first love,” Nelson said.
Nelson eventually settled down, married Marc Nelson and they had a son, Zeke. Nelson also found a hobby: karate. She earned a second-degree black belt in Okinawan Shorin Ryu and first-degree black belt in Okinawan weaponry.
Things were going well until both Shyloh and Zeke got into drugs and alcohol as teens. While Nelson and her husband had been clean for years, the children developed some of the same bad habits. That put stress on a marriage that eventually ended in 2012 after 20 years.
Nelson credits her ex-husband for getting her into martial arts. From there, she transitioned from boxing to coaching boxing with Lynch and had developed a certain toughness that helped her put any fear associated with her previous abusive relationship in perspective.
“I’d have these PTSD moments at times,” she said. “But then I realized he’s just a person, and I’ve been a professional boxer. Why the hell would I be afraid of him?”
Nelson eventually found love — at Ford’s Gym of all places — when James Lewallen took one of her classes and later asked her out. When they went out for drinks and she shared some of the difficult details of her previous relationships and family struggles, Lewallen didn’t flinch.
He was different than anyone she’d ever been with and she felt safe with him. They’ve been together for nine years and are engaged.
“He’s exactly what I needed,” Nelson said.
‘So many memories’
As Nelson talks on her porch, every once in a while she breaks eye contact and looks over to a large tree on her property. Hanging from the branches are wires with pictures attached.
It’s a memorial to Shyloh Nelson.
In addition to drugs and alcohol, Nelson’s daughter also dealt with a severe case of mental illness. She moved to San Diego five years ago for a change of scenery, a move that wasn’t intended to be permanent, but Shyloh ended up living on the streets.
Nelson visited and tried to get her to return to Wisconsin, but her daughter always resisted.
She made her final visit to San Diego in early June. A week later, Nelson was notified that Shyloh had been found dead at the age of 33 in her tent on June 11.
“I think to myself over and over how thankful I am that I put myself through those painful journeys to stay in touch with her,” Nelson said. “I have so many memories that I can hold onto because of that.”
The boxers she works with have helped fill a void in Nelson’s life, she said. And she’s happy to report her son is working with a landscaping company in the Madison area and taken positive steps to pull his life together. His mother calls him a “charming young man who loved his sister.”
Nelson took a short amount of time away from the boxing gym but returned in late June. Eddie Kenrick, who assists Nelson with training and is the vice president of the Bob Lynch Boxing Foundation, watched her working in the ring her first day back and couldn’t help but be impressed by the perseverance she was showing.
“Strongest woman I’ve ever met,” Kenrick said. “She’s never complained about anything, never used anything in her life as an excuse.”
Deshawn Ford, who’s 19 and has been training under Nelson for four years, said one of the things he loves about coming to the gym is the family atmosphere Nelson has created. They typically greet each other with fist bumps, but when Nelson got back from California following her daughter’s death he went out of his way to seek her out and give her a hug before the session began that evening.
It was exactly what Nelson needed.
“I think that it’s important to try to remember what’s important in life and that love and relationships are important,” Nelson said. “Just because it’s hard, don’t turn away from it. It’s like boxing: It’s hard, but you have to get in there and face it even though it’s scary.”
Contact Jim Polzin at firstname.lastname@example.org.