Marlen Esparza never lets up.
As soon as she fought her way to becoming the first U.S. qualifier for the inaugural Olympic women’s boxing tournament, Esparza’s gloves weren’t off before she thought, “I gotta get a gold medal.”
“My mind works that way,” she said with a laugh, “so it’s not a surprise.”
Going into any bout, Esparza said, “I feel like after I win this, I’m going to be so happy, and I’m going to feel the best I’ve ever felt in my life, and then once I actually win what I’ve set out to win, then I think, ‘OK, this is what I have to do next.’ So I never get to enjoy it. That’s just me.”
Esparza, 22, punched her ticket to London last month by defeating Vietnam’s Luu Thi Duyen 28-13 in the second round of the flyweight (112 pound) division at the World Championships in China. After losing in the quarterfinals, she returned home to Houston and found no time to relax, no neutral corner.
“It’s like, boom! You have to do a whole bunch of stuff, so it gets crazy — more intense than before,” Esparza said. “It’s the media that’s more draining than the actual working out.”
She’d better brace herself for the onslaught of attention that will come from being an Olympic pioneer. Boxing was the last remaining male-only bastion at the Summer Games.
“We finally broke through that,” Esparza said.
Women will compete in only three weight classes at the Games, while men will fight in 10 classes, with the U.S. qualifying nine male boxers.
In the other two women’s divisions, Claressa Shields, 17, made it into the London 2012 Olympic Games as a middleweight (165 pounds) based on continental qualification while the fate of Queen Underwood, 28, the top U.S. lightweight (132 pounds), still is being decided.
A gold medal in London might make Esparza finally stop and smell the English roses. She plans to retire from boxing after the Olympic Games and pursue her medical studies.
“I need a gold medal to feel like I did something right,” Esparza said. “I feel like if I get a silver or bronze, yes, that’s good and I’m going to be thankful, but it would be like if I only got the job done 80 percent and that’s just not good enough.
“I put my entire life on hold, and I’ve done this for so long and it’s what I do. It’s all I know and to not be able to accomplish it, to have somebody else do it and not me, it would crush me… Because if they could do it, that means I could have done it. We’re all playing the same sport, we invested the same time, invested the same energy and for you to get it done and not me, that says a lot about me and I don’t ever want to feel like I wasn’t good enough.”
Esparza has wanted to prove herself in the ring since she was about 8 years old. She learned to love boxing while watching bouts on television with her father.
“I thought that’s what everybody did,” Esparza said. “I grew close to the sport really young and I wanted to try it. It took a while for my father to let me.”
Esparza was nearly 12 years old when David Esparza finally relented, allowing his daughter to take up a sport he had encouraged his sons to try.
Although Esparza still swims as part of her training and also has excelled in volleyball, basketball and track, boxing appealed to her because everything falls on her shoulders.
“Not to be disrespectful to a team sport, but if you don’t feel good that day, you can still win a game,” Esparza said. “If I don’t feel good, I’m not going to win.”
Even in sports where athletes compete by themselves, such as swimming, she added, “the lanes don’t move. But in boxing, that’s what it makes it so mind racking and so intense and you get so intimidated because you never know what’s going to happen until you get in there. You don’t know what the person’s going to throw at you. So that’s what makes it so difficult and that’s what I love about it so much.”
In the ring, a hunch can be as important as a punch.
“I never think of boxing as hitting somebody or beating somebody up or inflicting pain,” Esparza said. “My mind does not go there. When it comes to boxing, I think of beating somebody mentally, being faster, quicker, smarter, being more intuitive than them. I always imagine it like a mind game. To me it’s like I’m overcoming you and everything you represent vs. causing you pain. I never think of actually hurting somebody.”
Esparza, who is 5-foot-3, is known for being fast and very mobile.
“I don’t think no one’s ever told me I hit hard,” she said.
Esparza said the upcoming Olympic Games will show that a lot of female boxers look better than their male counterparts when it comes to fundamentals, whereas now people “don’t pay attention because they’re girls,” she said. “I think when society sees that, it’s definitely going to help change the way everybody looks at not just women boxing, but at women as athletes in general — that we can do whatever guys can do.”
Yet Esparza doesn’t believe women have to sacrifice their femininity to compete in a male-dominated sport. She is one of the new faces of Cover Girl, joining the likes of Drew Barrymore, Sofia Vergara and Taylor Swift.
“I didn’t really like feeling like I have to act like a boy or get male tendencies, just to feel like I’m supposed to be boxing,” Esparza said. “You can be whoever you want to be and do whatever you want to do and don’t have to act a certain way to feel like you’re on the right path.”
Even before the cosmetics contract, she was wearing make-up in the ring, “but I don’t go overboard,” Esparza said, limiting herself to foundation and blush. “I never wear mascara, because it gets in your eyes when you sweat,” she added, admitting she may leave more makeup on when sparring because she’s “too lazy to take it off.”
Esparza said it takes her at least an hour and a half to get ready for a fight. After showering, she has to fix her hair, put on makeup, lotion and perfume, make sure what she’s wearing matches and even that she has the right socks on.
“I always say that if I look good, then I feel good,” she said, “and if I feel good then I fight good.”
Esparza felt like she’d taken a hard blow to the gut when she first found out the three Olympic weight classes did not include her 106-pound division. Esparza spent almost a year without fighting while she was building muscle to compete at 112 pounds.
“It was like a bittersweet feeling because I knew I was doing it for a good reason, and it was to reach my goal, but I was upset that I had to do that,” Esparza said. “I felt like, ‘Man, why couldn’t they just pick my weight?’ My lifestyle was already hard and I had to make it harder for myself.”
But she learned the science of boxing, how to gain weight without losing speed, and it paid off.
“It was stressful, but now that I’m at this weight class,” Esparza said, “I’m way, way better of a fighter at 112 than I was at 106.”
Her coach Rudy Silva marvels at her drive, but Esparza said it’s simple. “I love boxing, point blank.”
When she sees other people complain that they can’t get motivated or have no energy, “It’s because it’s not really what (they) want to do. I just got lucky and I’m in something that I genuinely love and care about and it’s a part of me. It makes me determined and it inspires me on its own.”
Now Esparza’s ready to take on the world in London, afraid of nothing…well, almost nothing.
“I’m scared of rubber bands,” she said. “People think that’s funny. When people pull them back in your face, it scares me really bad and I start to hyperventilate.”
Esparza should breathe easy. A rubber band doesn’t stand a chance against her when she's got a gold medal on her mind.