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LOOK | A Year With The Contenders

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Only three boxers made the first ever US Women's Olympic Boxing Team. Many tried. They gave up jobs, quit school, moved across the country to train with top coaches. Sue Jaye Johnson spent the year following their quest to make history. These are some of the photographs she took along the way.

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Sue Jaye Johnson

Tiara Brown started boxing when she was 13. After graduating from college, she moved to DC to train full time. She rented a room for $400 a month and lived on foodstamps. Toward the end of 2011, while training for the US Olympic Team Trials, she had $163 dollars in her bank account. “I can’t lose. There is no plan B. That is plan B. Win."

 

Sue Jaye Johnson

Brown trained all year with professional male boxers at Headbangers Gym in DC. Here, Barry Hunter puts her through a regimine called 'the play station.' “That gym is like a factory where they are making monsters," Brown says, "If you want it bad enough, you’ll do anything. You’ll puke and keep going."

Sue Jaye Johnson

“There is no girl who can tell me she trains harder,” Brown says. “I take myself to hell and back. I train twice a day. In the morning for about three and a half hours. And at night about three and a half hours. But I do it and I never break down."

Sue Jaye Johnson

Brown prays backstage before the 2011 USA National Tournament. She took second place, earning her the right to compete with other top-ranking lightweights for a spot on the first ever US women's Olympic boxing team. “Before the fight I pray for the other fighters. I don’t pray that they’re going to win. I pray that they don’t get hurt. Then I ask God to lead me in battle. That’s what the fights are to me, battles. One army against the other.”

Sue Jaye Johnson

Heather Hardy is a single mom from Gerritsen Beach in Brooklyn, NY. She took up boxing only a few years ago, at the age of 28, as a way to get in shape. Now she wants to be a World Champion. She gets up at 4 A.M., makes lunch for her daughter, then takes a one-hour bus ride to Gleason's Gym. She holds down four jobs. "Why would you work so hard 18 hours a day to make practically nothing? Because one day I will make something."

Sue Jaye Johnson

Hardy drops off her daughter at dance class. "When I fight people who are moms? You can't break a mom. A single mom, forget it."

Sue Jaye Johnson

In her first national championship, Hardy won the featherweight division. At the 2012 Olympics, there would be only three weight classes. Hardy's division, 125 lbs, would not be one of them. Some boxers gained or lost weight so they could compete in an Olympic weight class. Hardy decided not to. Very few amateur boxers make any money and as a single parent Hardy says she can't stay amateur much longer. She plans to turn pro as soon as she can, in hopes her sport's debut in the Olympics will mean more attention (and more money) for female pro fighters.

Sue Jaye Johnson

Flyweight (112 lb) contender Tyrieshia Douglas started boxing after she was sentenced to community service for fighting. “If it wasn't for boxing, I have no idea where I would be right now. When I was a young girl, I had a lot of anger inside me. It's a good thing I put my talent into some gloves.” In 2011, Douglas was ranked #2 in the country behind the favorite Marlen Esparza. Only one of them could make the Olympic Team.

Sue Jaye Johnson

Calvin Ford, Douglas’ coach in Baltimore, says she has the makings of a champion. “What she has to really work on is herself. Once she finds out what is in her, you’re going to see some amazing stuff.”

Sue Jaye Johnson

Douglas says people used to tell her she looked too strong. “It's against the rules to have as many muscles as I have.”

Sue Jaye Johnson

Alex Love was a basketball player until she woke up one day and decided she was going to the Olympics. As a boxer. “A lot of girls think I have been fighting for longer than two years,” says the flyweight from Monroe, WA. “When they beat me they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I beat Alex Love.’ And I’m like, ‘When did I become someone to beat?’”

Sue Jaye Johnson

At 11-years old Claressa Shields asked her father, a former fighter, to take her to the boxing gym. “Hell no!” he responded, “Boxing is a man's sport.” She persisted—and won. Six years later she says she still likes proving people wrong. “It motivates me.”

Sue Jaye Johnson

Not yet 17, Claressa was confined to the junior division where she had a hard time finding opponents. Her coach, Jason Crutchfield, looked for every opportunity to fight older, more experienced boxers. Here she celebrates her win over Canadian boxer Melinda Walpool. At the time, her record was an unblemished 19-0.

Sue Jaye Johnson

Claressa waits for the school bus in front of an abandoned house in Flint, MI. Winter of 2012, she was a junior at Northwestern High School. She napped after school, did her homework and then headed to the gym. “My goal before boxing was to have 10 kids before I was 26. I wanted to have a big old family. But now my goal is to get this gold medal and be a world champion.”

Sue Jaye Johnson

The 2011 Police Athletic League Tournament was the last chance to qualify for the Olympic Team Trials and at age 16, Claressa was finally old enough to compete in the open division. She won every round, every fight, and was named MVP of the entire tournament. Here, she defeats former World Champion Andrecia Wasson.

Sue Jaye Johnson

Well before it was decided that women would be allowed to box in the Olympics, coach Jason Crutchfield predicted that Claressa would someday compete in the Games at 165 lbs. She was 14 years old at the time, two inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter. “So far, everything has happened the way I said it would,” he says.

Sue Jaye Johnson

Twenty four women made it to the Olympic Team Trials held outside of Spokane, WA in February 2012. Only three would make the team. Queen Underwood was a favorite to represent the United States in the games.

Sue Jaye Johnson

Marlen Esparza, a seasoned veteran of the amateurs, prays before her final fight at the US Olympic Team Trials. She defeated Tyrieshia Douglas, winning a spot on Team USA at 112 lbs.

Sue Jaye Johnson

On the first night of the Olympic Team Trials, then 16-year old Claressa Shields drew the number one ranked boxer in her weight class, the charismatic and intimidating Franchon Crews. Claressa was placid before the fight. In the end, she left no doubt as to who was the stronger and more skilled fighter.

Sue Jaye Johnson

The boxers at the Olympic Team Trials were used to winning. That's how they made it to the Trials. But here, 21 out of 24 would lose the chance to compete at the Olympics. Tiffanie Hearn, who at one point lived in a back room of her gym so she could afford to train, fell to the ground when she lost to Franchon Crews by a single point.

Sue Jaye Johnson

Lightweight Mikaela Mayer went to battle every night of the Trials in order to come back from an early loss. But at the end of her grueling week, she was defeated by Queen Underwood in the finals. Underwood advanced to the first ever US Olympic Boxing Team.

Sue Jaye Johnson

The three winners at the Olympic Team Trials in Spokane were Claressa Shields, Queen Underwood and Marlen Esparza. But before they could enter the Olympic ring, there was one last hurdle. They had to qualify at the Women's World Championships in Qinhuangdao, China in May 2012. Three hundred five elite boxers from 70 countries competed.

Sue Jaye Johnson

Claressa Shields suffered her first loss ever to Savannah Marshall of Great Britain. No longer guaranteed a spot at the Olympics, Claressa's fate was now tied to Marshall. If her opponent did well enough, Claressa might still go to London.

Sue Jaye Johnson

Claressa waited all week as Savannah Marshall worked her way to the finals. "I won't cheer for her," Claressa said, "but I'll pray for her." Marshall emerged the winner, ensuring herself and Claressa a spot at the Olympics. "I really thank God for the loss," Claressa said. "I wanted to go undefeated throughout my whole career. But after that loss, if that's something that is going to make me train harder and make me work, punch and run faster, why not experience it?”

Sue Jaye Johnson

The Women's World Championship in China was the sole qualifier for the Olympics, but it also included non-Olympic weight classes. Many of the US boxers who lost at the US Olympic Team Trials went home, gained or lost weight, and - just one week later - became national champions in other weight classes. At Worlds in China, victory for Tiara Brown was bittersweet. She took home the gold medal, only the 3rd woman from the United States ever to do so. But not in an Olympic weight class. 

Sue Jaye Johnson

None of the three US Olympic athletes won 1st place at Worlds, but they all qualified for the Olympics. The rest of Team USA did well: one gold, two silver and two bronze medals. Newcomer Raquel Miller was one of the medalists. She inked prayers on her hand before her fights. Her next shot at the Olympics: Rio, 2016.

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