Evelyn Rios never imagined that tagging along after her older brother to boxing practice would open the door to a different path in life for her, much less that she would take that road.
The 17-year-old senior from Fort Myers High School recently was accepted by the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and will enter the program this summer. She is one of 1,200 nationwide who were accepted into that class.
There were approximately 17,000 applicants, of which 5,000 qualified.
Evelyn Rios, a participant in the Cape Coral Police Athletic League, or PAL, boxing program, eyes the heavy bag during a recent workout. A“classic student athlete,” she has been accepted by the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
"She's your classic student athlete," said retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Mike Pedersen, the local admissions liaison officer for the Naval Academy. "An overachiever."
With a 5.46 GPA, Rios ranks in the top 1 percent academically countywide. She is a National Honor Society member, is the children's choir director at her church and plays the viola with the Southwest Florida Youth Symphony.
Rios also is a participant in the Cape Coral Police Athletic League, or PAL, boxing program. Practices are held at the William "Bill" Austen Youth Center.
"For me, as a girl, it's something different," she said.
A stress reliever, boxing offers a group atmosphere and motivation.
"A lot of people don't do boxing anymore," Rios said.
She was first introduced to the sport through her older brother, Carl Rios. Interested in attending West Point, he knew boxing would play a large role.
According to Pedersen, all of the United States service academies involve some level of boxing. The Naval Academy requires entering freshmen to box their first summer in attendance. It is also incorporated into the curriculum.
"It's part of the training," he said. "They get exposed to boxing quite a bit."
Knowing what lay ahead, Rios' brother joined PAL boxing to get a head start.
"I tagged along with him," she said.
The trainers offered to teach Rios to box as well, and she accepted. Two years later, she can still be found boxing at the youth center. She practices two to three times per week for a couple hours. Her routine involves a one-mile run, warm-up stretches and boxing exercises, like shadow boxing.
Her brother is currently a sophomore at West Point.
Asked about applying to the Naval Academy, Rios explained that it initially was a second option. Having applied and been accepted to the University of Florida and Florida State University, she had assumed at first that she simply would attend a regular university like most graduates.
"I never really considered it until my brother," Rios said.
After talking with her family and doing research, she began the application process for the Naval Academy. After a visit to the academy, she was sold.
"I really liked it a lot more than I thought I would," Rios said.
"It's a whole completely different experience," she added. "And just the opportunities afterward, there's no many."
Everything also seemed to click for Rios. Applicants have a checklist of items that they must provide, including essays, grades, a candidate profile, teacher recommendations, and nominations from members of Congress.
U.S. Rep. Connie Mack and former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux nominated her.
Rios was shocked when she received the nomination from LeMieux.
"It's not easy to get a senator," she said.
Of her acceptance into the Naval Academy, Rios is still amazed.
"I can't even sometimes believe I got picked," she said. "It's so hard to get in."
Rios hopes to one day be a Navy pilot.
"I've always loved flying," she said. "It just seems like a really cool thing to do."
According to Pedersen, Cape resident Eric Henegar will also attend the Naval Academy this summer. Henegar will graduate from Bishop Verot High School.
Two others from the Cape are current possibilities for acceptance.
Pedersen noted that two or three applicants locally are accepted per year.
The Cape PAL boxing program was started about 16 years ago by Officer Mike Anderson. Anderson, who still runs the program, is currently a school resource officer and member of the Cape police department SWAT team.
He said the PAL boxing program is unique.
"You can't get it in too many places," Anderson said.
Boxing can help adolescents feel comfortable in their own skin.
"It builds their self esteem," Anderson said.
"Sports change lives in one way or another," he added.
The Cape PAL boxing program is for ages 8-18 and runs Tuesday-Thursday from 6-8 p.m. at the William "Bill" Austen Youth Center, at 315 S.W. Second Ave. The cost is $85 with a valid center membership. For more information on the program, call 242-3950 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.