February 07, 2005 12:00 PM

The first time Hilary Swank landed a blow while training for her Oscar-nominated turn as a boxer in Million Dollar Baby, she told her opponent, “I’m sorry.” Furious, her real-life trainer Hector Roca warned, “The next time you say you’re sorry, you can go find yourself a new trainer!” Soon after, Swank, 30, bloodied a guy’s nose—then smiled at Roca. After that, says Roca, “she began to fight like a real fighter.”

Even after shedding the 19 lbs. of muscle she packed on during three months of intense training, Swank remains tight with the man who made her buff and tough. “He pushes you to be the best you can be,” she says. A two-time Olympic cyclist for his native Panama, where his father and half brother were national boxing champions, Roca, 64, is one of 78 trainers at the renowned Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. His philosophy is simple: “You have to give the boxer confidence in himself,” he says. Or herself. “In a world that can be sexist,” says Swank, “Hector is not.”

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