Jennifer Vaughn hustled into the boxing gym wearing a pant suit and droplet earrings, apologizing for being late.
An assistant public defender assigned to the Cook County juvenile division, Vaughn, 35, had been held up in court on an abuse and neglect case, a job as draining as it sounds, especially considering that caseloads have doubled since last year.
But here, at LA Boxing in the South Loop, muggy with sweat, she finds her center. As men and women packed the gym floor for a conditioning class, Vaughn, an amateur fighter who opened the gym in November 2009, felt proud to see others doing the same.
"It's Friday night at 5:30, and they could be out drinking, and we have a full class," she said.
Vaughn picked up boxing to get back in shape and de-stress after graduating from law school, which was so overwhelming that she had started to have panic attacks. She became addicted to the sport, and after several months her trainer at JAB Fitness Training agreed she had what it took to compete.
"I'm pretty sure my husband (Peter Minjares) thought I was nuts," Vaughn said.
At her first fight, Vaughn remembers "sheer terror, crazy nerves, jelly legs," and she lost by technical knockout. She has since had four more amateur bouts, and won half of them, though she hasn't been able to compete for a year because her last fight knocked over the cartilage in her nose.
"You kind of walk with a little bit of a swagger after that," Vaughn said.
Vaughn opened the LA Boxing franchise, in an empty storefront in the newly constructed Astoria Tower apartment building at 8 E. 9th St., because she grew frustrated that all the gyms in Chicago seemed to be focused on either training professionals or "a fluffy Tae Bo experience." She wanted something in between, where you could train like a fighter but not necessarily compete, and she wanted to encourage women to put up their dukes.
"Apart from the fitness aspect, especially for women it gives you a sense of confidence, of being able to overcome really tough obstacles," said Vaughn, who is now in a program to get her MBA. Sixty-five percent of gym members are women, she said, and there are 13 amateur and pro boxers working as trainers, leading 48 classes a week.
Vaughn hopes to one day have a program or separate gym for troubled teens, who, from her work as a public defender, she believes could benefit from the structure, diversion and challenge of boxing.
As for her own next challenge, Vaughn has booked tickets to travel to Phuket, Thailand this fall for a three-week muay Thai (Thai boxing) camp, where she'll train six hours a day.
"I'm going to come back with a six-pack," she said.
Q: What is your greatest attribute?
A: A never-ending persistence and stubbornness.
Q: What is your greatest fault?
A: I'm a perfectionist. It can be a blessing but it can also be a curse because at some point you have to realize you can't control everything, and you have to trust others around you to help out.
Q: What's the best lesson you learned from your mom or dad?
A: I grew up watching them run their own businesses (her mom has a coffee and tea shop and her dad has an engineering company in her hometown of Morrison, Ill.), and I think that has led to me learning how to manage my personal life and work at the same time.
Q: What suffers more, the professional or personal?
A: Oh, personal, definitely. Luckily I have a very understanding husband. And two dogs that are sometimes less understanding. But you learn not to take any moment for granted when you do have time.
Q: What has been your greatest mistake?
A: I would have gotten my MBA before my law degree. There are more useful skills you can pull out of an MBA, and it would have been useful to have it before the gym opened. Budgeting would have been good to know.
Q: What's your dream job?
A: I would probably open a gym in Thailand. I love the country, the weather, the food.
Q: What did you want to do when you were 13?
A: I was torn between a private detective and a veterinarian.
Q: Where do you get lost shopping?
A: I was obsessed with the Henri Bendel store in Chicago. It went away and now it's back. I loved to go there on holidays, and to Marshall Fields. I was one of those people who was picketing when it changed to Macy's.
Q: What do you think is the secret to success?
A: Find something that you love to do and it won't feel like you work a day in your life. And be persistent. Success doesn't come overnight.
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