Los Angeles Times - 03.04.2020

(C. Jardin) #1



Mia St. John
sighed as she
searched for
the words to
describe the
despair she
felt on the day
of her relapse.
“There was
such, I don’t
know, just like a sense of
isolation,” she said.
The 52-year-old former
boxer had driven to one
Alcoholics Anonymous
meeting, then another, only
to find neither was in ses-
Her next stop was a gro-
cery store, where she pur-
chased a bottle of wine.
“And that was that,” St.
John said. “I was gone from
When she regained con-
sciousness, she was in the
driver’s seat of her car,
parked in the garage of her
condominium complex in
Marina del Rey.
The episode frightened
her. She has abstained from
drinking in the week or so
“But,” she said, “it’s diffi-
The problem she encoun-
tered when she relapsed
remains a major source of
anxiety. A county order has
prohibited public gatherings
and AA isn’t exempt. The
ban frustrates St. John, who
typically attended six meet-
ings a week and has found
online alternatives to be too
“They say food’s es-
sential,” St. John said. “Well,
so are my meetings.”
She vented on Twitter,
wondering how Los Angeles
Mayor Eric Garcetti could
allow restaurants and bars
to deliver alcohol but not
permit AA groups to meet.
“... gotta keep the alcohol
industry going!!” she wrote,
emphasizing her point by
adding five icons of bags with
dollar signs on them.
St. John said she hoped
Garcetti would read the
message and grant recovery
groups permission to meet.
She now has an idea she
thinks would satisfy both her
and the mayor, taking inspi-
ration from how some super-
markets have placed strips
of tape on the floor six feet
apart to help customers
maintain a safe distance
from one another.
“Why couldn’t they do
that in an AA meeting?” she

There was a time St. John
was one of the most famous
boxers in the world. Her
nickname, “The Knockout,”
had a double meaning: She
was a former model who
stopped five of her first six
Along with Eric “Butter-
bean” Esch, she regularly
appeared on the undercards
of pay-per-view boxing
shows in the late 1990s and
early 2000s, including some

headlined by Oscar De La
Hoya. She was considered
something of a novelty act
but was skilled and resilient
enough to win multiple
world championships. When
she was 38, she lasted 10
rounds against a 24-year-old
Holly Holm, who went on to
become a UFC champion.
The success masked St.
John’s demons.
St. John said she was
about 10 when she sneaked

into her father’s liquor cab-
inet and had her first drink.
She attended her first AA
meeting at 12. She was in
recovery before her 21st
St. John attended AA
meetings throughout her
65-fight career, which ended
in 2016.
She endured tragedy in
recent years.
Her 24-year-old son died
by suicide in November 2014.
Her world crashed again in
February 2019, when her
ex-husband, Kristoff St.
John, died.
Kristoff, an Emmy
Award-winning actor on the
soap opera “The Young and
the Restless,” blamed him-
self for the death of their son,
who suffered from
schizophrenia and drank
himself to death, Mia said.
Mia had her first drink in
30 years after Kristoff ’s
death, she said.
St. John described the 14
months since then as “a
“I need to go to my meet-
ings every single day,” she
said. “This is something that
I have to do because I have to
force myself to get out there

and to interact with other
alcoholics and to share and
to talk about it. It’s a neces-
sity for me. And the fact that
I don’t have that anymore,
it’s been really difficult.”
Many recovery groups
have moved online and have
encouraged their members
to attend meetings via the
internet. St. John tried at-
tending a couple of virtual
“The ones I’ve seen that
are posted, you go on there
and it’s Zoom or Skype and
there are hundreds of other
people on there,” she said.
“It’s just not the same.”
St. John’s reaction is
understandable, said Leslie
Gold, the founder of Strides
in Recovery, a nonprofit
organization that uses run-
ning to assist recovering
Gold recited a line made
famous by writer Johann
Hari: “The opposite of addic-
tion isn’t sobriety; it is con-
Gold, who doesn’t know
St. John, explained that
addicts often isolate them-
selves, first to hide their
substance abuse and later
out of shame. In recovery

groups, Gold said, “They all
get it.”
“They have this chem-
istry and they start to feel
better,” Gold said.
Uplifting words from
another group member can
do wonders for someone
thinking of quitting a recov-
ery program.
Which is why Gold urges
people in recovery to main-
tain established social links.
In her own case, Gold has
started posting regularly on
her group’s Facebook page.
She said friends could plan
walks or runs in different
places at the same time and
communicate on the phone
while they exercise.
St. John is already doing
some of that. What she
called her “self-medication”
program consists these days
of meditating, running and
speaking to friends on the
phone. Her 27-year-old
daughter, with whom she
lives, is a source of strength.
But St. John is also con-
cerned about her students at
Step Up on Second, an or-
ganization that serves peo-
ple afflicted by mental illness
and homelessness. St. John
started teaching a boxing
fitness class after the death
of her son, who was homeless
at times. She said the over-
whelming majority of the
people she instructs are
“A lot of my homeless
students do not have access
to the internet or cell-
phones,” St. John said. “So
how are they supposed to do
these online meetings?”
Ray Leonard, another
boxing champion who is an
AA member, spoke about
the dilemma on a video he
recently posted on Insta-
gram. While saying he
supported Garcetti’s co-
ronavirus-related measures,
he acknowledged the chal-
lenge faced by alcoholics.
“I want to sincerely en-
courage you to continue with
your groups,” Leonard said.
“Stay in contact. I’m fighting
with you. No, no, we’re fight-
ing together.”
St. John also opted for a
positive message, uploading
to her Twitter account a
picture of herself on a run.
“Back to running!” she
After listing some alco-
hol-related statistics, she
wrote, “Choose #Sobriety
Choose LIFE.”
There were four emojis at
the end of the tweet, four
sets of hands placed firmly
together in prayer.

Fighting addiction in a pandemic

With in-person Alcoholics Anonymous meetings banned, former boxer St. John struggles one day at a time


MIA ST. JOHN VENTEDon Twitter, wondering how L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti could allow restaurants and
bars to deliver alcohol but not permit AA groups to meet. Internet meetings are not the same, she said.

Liz MoughonLos Angeles Times

ST. JOHN,left, fighting Brooke Dierdorff in 2009,
attended her first AA meeting when she was 12.

Luis AcostaAFP via Getty Images

tine,” Dennis said. In gymnas-
tics, Dennis was rarely sur-
rounded by people who
looked like her. But at Battle
of the Bands, she saw black
women perform with confi-
dence and energy. She wanted
to be like them, she said.
With her routine catching
fire toward the end of Febru-
ary — Black History Month —
and carrying into Women’s
History Month, Dennis is no
longer just an inspired on-
“It’s crazy that I’ve been
able to inspire so many young
athletes, young girls, young
women by simply doing what I
love to do,” Dennis said.
This is not how Dennis
thought she would gain gym-
nastics fame. It was supposed
to be the Olympics.
But a ruptured Achilles

tendon in 2016, just months
before the Olympic trials for
the Rio de Janeiro Games,
ended that dream.
Dennis stayed in her room
for three months. She cried
every day. She was like a dif-
ferent person, her mother
Deetra Dennis said. But she
still found ways to practice,
lugging her crutches and
post-surgery cast to the gym.
“Something inside of me
was not letting me decide to
quit,” Dennis said. “Just be-
cause I watched one of my
dreams fade, I’m not going to
let the rest of my dreams
The next dream was
UCLA, where she found com-
fort in the family-like team at-
mosphere. It was a dramatic
shift from elite gymnastics,
where every gymnast is “just
trying to make it,” Dennis
said. She got stuck in her own
head during her elite years, re-
treating into a stubborn state
and trying skills again and
again and again, even if they
weren’t getting better.
Now she voices her frustra-
tions to her teammates dur-
ing practice. They give her en-
couragement and the lessons
carry over to meets.
Being surrounded by sup-
portive teammates made
Dennis reevaluate what she
believed was important. She
used to look for outside val-
idation from coaches or
friends. Now she is fulfilled by
her own actions.
“From Day 1 this year, she’s
really embraced being her-
self,” Waller said. “When you
embrace being yourself, those
who rally around you, those
are your family ... and you
really discover that being
yourself is the most empower-
ing thing you can do.”

senior Grace Glenn and now
22 career perfect scores for
Kyla Ross, Dennis’ moment
showed the junior’s arrival as
aconsistent contributor for
the Bruins. Competing on a
shredded labrum in her shoul-
der, a five-year-old injury that
will ultimately require
surgery, Dennis never scored
lower than 9.825 on floor or
vault this season, earning sec-
ond-team All-Pac-12 Confer-
ence honors on both.
“It feels a lot to me like she
figured out what was impor-
tant to her,” Waller said.
“What launched her relatabil-
ity and self confidence was a)
being herself, but b) investing
in the team. The more she
threw herself into the team,
the more authentic she got
and all of the sudden, she per-
sonally blew up.”

Nia Dennis’ birthday hat
was a crown.
The junior celebrated her
21st birthday Feb. 23 by per-
forming a Beyoncé-inspired
floor routine that would make
her UCLAgymnastics’ latest
internet sensation. With a
flick of her hair and an imagi-
nary crown on her head, Den-
nis earned a 9.975 in a dual
meet against Utah and at-
tracted more than 20 million
views on Twitter.
Attention rolled in. Celeb-
rities like Steve Harvey, Alicia
Keys and Gabrielle Union
gave her shoutouts on Twit-
ter. She earned a verification
check mark on the social me-
dia platform.
“I just don’t really know
what I did to receive this much
positivity,” Dennis said, grin-
ning with gratitude.
It culminated March 11,
when she performed a con-
densed routine on stage at
“The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
Her mother, father and 10-
year-old sister cheered from
the front row.
That was the final time
Dennis performed the routine
this year. The following day,
the rest of UCLA’s season was
canceled because of the
COVID-19 pandemic. The pre-
mature end left the Bruins
with unfilled goals, but they
still celebrated their accom-
plishments under first-year
head coach Chris Waller.
Among a historic perfect 10 for

Dennis’ most popular floor
routine was her most person-
al. Inspired by a family tradi-
tion of attending theBayou
ClassicBattle of the Bands, an
annual event in New Orleans
featuring historically black
universities Southern and
Grambling State, Dennis por-
trays a majorette in the rou-
She high-steps across the
floor, striking poses with each
movement. She nonchalantly
shrugs, as if to say the intri-
cate tumbling pass she just
completed is no big deal. And
she does it all to a medley of
Beyoncé hits from the super-
star’s “Homecoming” album
recorded from her 2018 Coa-
chella performance featuring
live marching bands.
“I wanted to really bring
family and culture to the rou-

UCLA’s Dennis has Beyoncé to thank

Gymnast drew from

the pop star for floor

routine that made her

an internet sensation.

By Thuc Nhi Nguyen

NIA DENNIS, whose season came to a premature end because of the COVID-
outbreak, celebrates with fans during a gymnastics meet at UCLA.

Wally SkalijLos Angeles Times

On the web

For these and other
stories online, go to

A plan to keep
Lakers ready

With play suspended,
Frank Vogel has
tasked the assistant
coaches with scouting
other teams on film.

Calling shots in
college football
Power Five conference
commissioners are
positioned to chart
the course for the
sport post-pandemic.

It never gets old
for Whitworth
Veteran tackle
Andrew Whitworth
will return as the
primary protector for
Rams’ Jared Goff.

Settle things
with a slugfest
Dodgers’ Justin
Turner suggests
having a home-run
derby decide winners
of extra-inning games.

VOGELhopes the
Lakers can pick up
where they left off.

Katelyn MulcahyGetty Images
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