US women boxers celebrate wins, look toward China

Feb. 19, 2012, 5:49 p.m. (ET)

AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash.(AP) The day after Queen Underwood, Marlen Esparza and Claressa Shields established themselves as the nation's toughest amateur boxers, everybody got manicures and pedicures.

The three winners of the first U.S. Olympic team trials for women's boxing were treated to a spa day after earning trips to the world championships with unbeaten runs through their weight divisions.

“Believe it or not, I'm already looking forward to getting back into training,” Underwood said, reclining into a couch while soaking her feet. “I want to be there right now. I'm feeling really good about my chances. We're all focused on the next steps, and that's the world championships and the Olympics.”

But first, maybe a facial.

All three fighters plan to take a short break before resuming training for their trip to China in May. They must finish in the top eight at the world championships to qualify for the first Olympic women's boxing tournament in London.

“I started thinking about it last night,” said Esparza, who also decided overnight she won't pursue a seventh straight title at the national championships in two weeks. “I want to focus on the worlds, and taking that step.”

U.S. national team coach Joe Zanders and his staff are ready to help. Zanders was grateful Saturday night when the tournament's three strongest boxers all advanced from the trials, defeating their final opponents and avoiding a winner-take-all finale in the double-elimination tournament Sunday.

“I think we've got the right three fighters to get the job done,” Zanders said. “I like everything about these three women. They've got a great combination of talent and athleticism, and they're going to go far.”

The pedicure was a first for the 16-year-old Shields, who viewed the various spa devices and potions with a wary eye. Her coach, Jason Crutchfield, forbade pink nail polish on the hands that battered the nation's best middleweights over the past week, so she settled on orange.

“It's exciting, but I still can't really believe it,” Shields said.

Zanders and his staff will take the boxers through an intensive training camp in a few weeks, but Zanders also plans to check in with their personal coaches to make sure they're working toward the same training goals. Dissonance between local trainers and national-team coaches has long been among the top American amateur boxers' biggest problems, culminating in the disappointing performance of the men at the Beijing Games after USA Boxing took the fighters away from their trainers for a yearlong residency program.

Zanders has strived to heal those wounds by working closely with personal coaches and trainers, and USA Boxing accepted help from famed pro trainer Freddie Roach as a consulting coach. With a team effort, Zanders believes the American women have a strong chance to make the Olympic field.

“We'll put everything together,” Zanders said. “It's going to be a challenge to get it done in this time frame, but when you've got this type of talent, I'll take the challenge.”

Zanders is impressed by Underwood's combination of core strength and mobility, figuring her well-rounded skills will help her in the international game. Underwood and Esparza are both polished fighters and veterans of international competitions, well aware of the differences in style and judging.

Zanders also likes Esparza's intelligence and tenacity, no surprise from the former high school student body president who's putting off college to make an Olympic run.

“Strategywise, I don't think there's anybody in the game better than her,” Zanders said. “This week, it wasn't the physical stuff she won on. It was the psychological stuff, the mental stuff. She doesn't fold. She steps up to the pressure, and I love that.”

Shields was the biggest surprise and the most impressive boxer in the tournament, overpowering the nation's best middleweights with strength and athleticism. The teenager from Flint, Mich., also has the most to learn, particularly about the international fighting style.

“I watched her in some of these bouts, and I see just great things,” Zanders said. “She already knows how to move her feet and use lateral movement, but she doesn't do it much because she hasn't needed to. We'll teach her to rely on her technique, and once she can do that, she's a killer.”

Zanders will work with Crutchfield to teach Shields new techniques while encouraging her to ditch bad habits such as her decision to spend much of her final fight against Tika Hemingway hemmed against the ropes.

Zanders chuckled when he saw Shields' move, recognizing the strategy as a favorite of former student Chris Byrd, the former heavyweight champion who came out the same Flint gym where Shields now trains.

“He was excellent at it, but we'll make sure she understands the importance of not being there,” Zanders said. “We'll teach her. She's special.”