The 2012 Olympic games in London are still months away but boxer Marlen Esparza is fighting to increase her chances at making the U.S. national team.
Esparza, who was featured in CNN’s documentary “Latino in America: In Her Corner,” won a silver medal at the World Cup of Petroleum Countries held in Surgut, Russia, this weekend.
It wasn't what she was hoping for. “I really thought I had won,” she told her coach, Rudy Silva, over the phone. The judges favored local champion, Svetlana Gnevanova, by 10 points to eight.
The tournament hosted boxers from 15 countries, which gave Esparza the chance to fight some of the women she could face at next year’s world championships or the 2012 Olympics.
Before any of that happens though, Esparza will have to make the national team and defeat her opponents at the U.S. Olympic trials in February.
“All international fights are hard,” she told Silva, who asked questions on CNN’s behalf while Esparza is in Russia. “That level of fighting is more like a chess match and it makes you raise your fighting game up to another level.”
Since “Latino in America: In Her Corner,” aired in September, Esparza has barely taken a break from her grueling training schedule. At 112 pounds, the 22-year-old Mexican-American flyweight from Houston won the national championship in Colorado Springs in June. She became one of the only women to hold six national titles.
Now, she’s off to Ukraine to fight against the country’s top-ranked boxer on Saturday. She said she’s looking forward to meeting even more opponents that might preview her future.
“This competition is very important to me because it gives me the international experience that I very much need to keep up with other countries’ style of boxing,” Esparza said as she prepared to head overseas.
“I will be preparing for when it comes to getting ready for the Olympics.”
The opportunities for women boxers have grown since the sport was added to the Olympics. In 2009, women could box only at the Women's Continental Championships. In 2011 they’ve had eight competitions, most of them connected to tournaments where women’s boxing is making a debut, like the Pan American Games.
In the past two weeks, U.S. women boxers have been matched with opponents from Mexico, Russia, Poland and Germany. While Esparza is in Russia and Ukraine, some of her peers were in London.
“With the inclusion of women into the Olympic games, I think all countries have made it a priority to make women events scheduled within their own country or events were women can participate,” said Anthony Bartkowski, executive director of USA Boxing. “We’re starting to see more women and men competing at the same events.”
USA Boxing coach Gloria Peek traveled with the group that participated at the London Test Event, where countries who have Olympic boxing teams get a chance to match their athletes.
“It’s a dry run of the Olympics,” Peek said. “It is an opportunity to test the fighters on top who might be facing our fighters.”
For Esparza and 23 other women, the competitions are a chance to improve their style before facing each other at the U.S. Olympic trials, which start on February 13.
“The challenge now is just staying focused on my training and to continue to do what has made me successful in and out of the ring,” Esparza said. “The goal in my mind is of course making it to London and bringing back that gold medal for me, for my family, for all the Hispanic people in America and of course for everybody who has ever supported me.”