It’s a typical night at the Howard Street Gym, Spokane’s downtown boxing mecca. Every two minutes, a buzzer sounds to mark the end of a round. Speed bags rat-a-tat-tat in a staccato cadence and the smell of sweat and disinfectant hang in the air.
The workout progresses at stations around the downstairs gym. In the center of the room, longtime coach Ray Kerwick, stopwatch in hand, conducts a round-robin sparring match.
Three aspiring women and a talented 11-year-old boy take turns working the cut-down ring. Each has something different to work on. Kerwick occasionally stops the round and tells a boxer to drop and give him pushups for not heeding his instructions.
By the time the third woman enters the ring, the other three already have worked up a good sweat.
“You ready, Chynna?” he asks, looking at 20-year-old Chynna Nibler.
A veteran member of the Howard Street Boxing Club and, before that, the Spokane Eagles Boxing Club, Nibler already is well into her workout routine. Sweat glistens off tanned skin. A long scar extends above the black sweat pants she wears, rolled down to a comfortable height. It’s an exclamation point for Nibler. She refuses to allow it to be an explanation.
She nods and ducks between the ropes and squares off with the youngster.
“Don’t take it easy on him,” Kerwick says, laughing. “He’s not going to take it easy on you.”
Still, Nibler’s maternal instincts take over and she obviously pulls her punches. Her movements, once crisp and aggressive, are just a half-beat late – not enough to notice unless you’d seen her in a sanctioned bout. Punches that once flew with a mind of their own now lag ever-so-slightly behind those of her upstart opponent.
What started as a smile as she entered the ring tightens into a stern set, betraying a growing frustration.
“I have to face it – I may never be able to do the things the way I used to do,” she says later. “That’s hard for me to take, but it just may be true. I may never be as fast as I used to be, I may never have the stamina I used to have.
“I just don’t want to accept it yet.”
Chynna Nibler’s hair is darker now. Where it once flowed into a blond ponytail, it circles her race like a halo. Her eyes hold a touch of world-weary weight one rarely finds in one so young.
Cancer does that to you. So can living with its aftermath.
“I feel great these days,” she says, her voice bubbling with life. “I feel amazing. When you have cancer you sometimes forget what it feels like to feel healthy. You wonder when it’s going to end.”
Nibler has been a fighter since before she read. She started in karate tournaments when she was 5 and took up boxing as a freshman at Gonzaga Prep.
Perky and svelte, she never looked like a prototypical boxer. A cheerleader in the Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer mold, perhaps, but not a boxer. Until the bell rang.
Nibler charged out of her corner like a punching steamroller, throwing jabs and hooks with non-stop fervor. In the ring, her transmission knew only forward gears. Backing up was out of the question.
“Something about boxing that’s so different than karate, and I have loved boxing since the first time I tried it. You have to be hungry for it,” she said. “There’s this misconception about boxing. I don’t look like your typical boxer and I like that. You get a lot of respect from guys. It keeps them honest. I don’t know how else to put it: They respect a bad-ass.”
After graduation, she headed off to Western Washington University. When she came home on winter break at the end of 2007, she complained of terrible pain in her back.
“I went in and had some tests done and found out that I have cancer. Bone cancer,” she said, her voice thickening with emotion. “I had Ewing’s sarcoma, a super-aggressive cancer. Thank God it was a localized disease and we caught it early.”
Ewing’s sarcoma is a rare form of malignant cancer that attacks teenage boys more often than girls. It commonly attacks the pelvis and surrounding bones. Catch it early and treat it aggressively and the prognosis is quite good.
The treatment was aggressive. There were six months of chemotherapy that robbed her of her long, blond hair. There was the total replacement of her left hip and a partial reconstruction of her pelvis. And there was a course of radiation treatment.
For perhaps the first time in her life, Nibler’s opponent had her on the ropes.
“Chemo is tough stuff,” she said, taking a respectful tone. “I didn’t know a lot about it pre-cancer. I don’t think many people do. In my case, it came in liquid form – an I.V. bag. They put tubes in my chest and the I.V. connected right into those tubes. It’s poison, that’s all it is. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories. You don’t eat. You puke. You get sores in your mouth and other places I won’t mention. It’s some rough stuff.”
The laughter helped. Her tight-knit family helped keep her focused and upbeat, although at times it was indistinguishable who was supporting whom.
“There are just four of us in my family,” Nibler said, “my dad, my brother, my sister and me. My mom hasn’t been in the picture for a very long time. I could see just how difficult this was for my dad. I knew he wanted more than anything to just take all this away and to protect me.”
Difficult as the treatment was, Nibler fought on.
“It was hard,” she said. “I was told that I would never walk again normally. I would never run. I would never box.
“It’s the kind of thing where it would be easy, so easy, to just give up and stop eating and stop fighting.”
But fighting is what Nibler is all about, be it an opponent across a ring or a direct attack on her health. She does not back up. She does not give up. She never gives in.
“Having a fighter’s attitude played a huge part in my recovery,” she said. “I was angry and I took it head-on just like I would another boxer.
“And I laughed a lot. I tried not to take it all too seriously.”
Except for the hair loss.
“You know, there’s something so personal about losing every bit of hair on your body, especially for a girl,” she said. “I occasionally go back to the pediatric ward to talk to young patients and we talk about that a lot.
“But it grows back. Not the same way, in my case. But if that’s all I have to complain about, I’m pretty lucky.”
Treatment officially ended in November 2008 and Nibler wasted no time getting back to training for a return to the boxing ring.
“I so wanted to get back in the ring and get back to training,” she said. “That’s actually started to work against me. I tend to ignore pain and push myself harder than I should.”
Last week Nibler went back into the hospital for back surgery to fuse two lumbar vertebrae damaged as she pushed her post-cancer workout harder than she should.
“A lot of it has to do with me being so active right after surgery and radiation,” she said. “I don’t give into pain. I ignore pain. This time, I should have listened more.”
Still, she said, she has every intention to be back in the ring.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “I was just getting back on track with boxing and then to have this to deal with. Hopefully, this will be the last thing I’ll have to deal with and I can get back to training and back to fighting.”
Nibler said she understands the aftereffects of her battle with cancer.
“I know I may never get back to where I was before I got sick,” she said. “Chemo is tough stuff and because of it I may never have the kind of wind, the kind of stamina I had before. But I’m okay with it. I’ll deal with it.”
Still, she said, she has a warning.
“I feel sorry for the first woman I step in the ring against,” she said, laughing. “I have so much stuff I need to get out of my system and I’m going to take it out on her.”