Heavyweight boxing champ and public school teacher Sonya Lamonakis has a seriously soft side: "I love children. I love helping them, teaching them, assisting them." Her big heart, however, didn't prevent her from being the first woman ever to win four consecutive NYC Golden Gloves titles.
Lamonakis grew up in a big, Greek family in western Massachusetts. There was a "deli and convenience store attached to the house…and my grandfather's seafood restaurant down the street, so as I kid, I learned a good work ethic," she says.
Although she had played basketball, softball, and field hockey in high school and college, Lamonakis didn't start boxing until she was 27. Her first bout was against a three-time world champion and the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in heavyweight boxing. Although she lost the fight-and her next two-Lamonakis's work ethic came in handy. She says her losses gave her "the will and drive to want to succeed."
Her parents, on the other hand, weren't so sure about her new hobby. Lamonakis says it took two years for her mother to stomach coming to a fight. The first time, Lamonakis recalls looking out of the ring and spotting her mom "shaking like a leaf." Lamonakis ended up winning the fight, and her mom was hooked and got behind her daughter's passion for boxing.
Despite her success as a boxer, for Lamonakis, teaching always comes first. "I'm an educator before I'm a fighter," she says. She began her career as a speech therapist and then earned her Masters in Education and began to teach in the classroom. In 2005, she attended a job fair in New York City and landed a position teaching technology to grades K-5. She packed up a U-Haul, said goodbye to Massachusetts, and settled in Bayside, Queens-a heavily Greek neighborhood. This move also let her pursue her dream of winning the NYC Golden Gloves-a popular fight that takes place annually in Madison Square Garden.
It takes a lot of discipline to train six days a week and hold down a fulltime teaching job, but Lamonakis finds her life incredibly gratifying. Her tech-savvy students dig up pictures of her and articles on the Web to share in the classroom. "I think they find a lot of inspiration in what I do," she says. "They are impressed that I'm both a teacher and a fighter."
The back of Lamonakis's boxing robe is emblazoned with "The Scholar," which is derived from the Greek "La Scala"-or the female teacher. Lamonakis says that "knowledge is power" both in the classroom and the ring. She believes that boxing is a science, not just about using brute force to knock your opponent out. As she puts it, "It's about making them miss and making them pay."
Lamonakis's ultimate goal is to become women's heavyweight boxing world champion, and she has the confidence to do it. She recalls her first year on the circuit and being the underdog who beat a five-time Golden Gloves winner. "In the beginning, everyone was cheering for her," she remembers. "But by the end, I won their hearts and everyone was cheering, 'Go Greek! Go Greek!'"