Carlos Balderas always got into a trouble growing up in Santa Maria, California. He and his friends resolved their problems by fighting. It got so bad that the adults had to intervene with the 7-year-olds.
“They took us to the boxing gym as punishment to straighten us up,” Balderas said. “I liked it, and I started winning all the time.”
He’s won so much that Balderas, now 19, recently qualified for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. The fact he’d made Team USA in boxing’s lightweight division (132 pounds) meant another epic chapter in his family’s story of the American dream.
“It was a great feeling when they told me,” Balderas said. “I was more in shock. After putting down the phone, I started thinking back to when I was that 7-year-old little boy. It was what I worked for as a kid. It’s everything I ever wanted.”
Balderas said his grandfather and uncles left their poverty-stricken home in Mexico to seek a better life in the United States. They painstakingly worked the strawberry fields as their trade to make ends meet. They saved enough money to eventually bring the rest of the family to California.
Carlos, the first member of his family born in the United States, said his grandfather, David Balderas, is his biggest inspiration.
“He is one of the strongest and hardest working men I know,” the young boxer said.
Carlos has a strong work ethic when it comes to training. He said his regimen consists of getting up around 6:30 a.m. and running 4-5 miles. He then goes for a 40-minute swim, then goes home to rest for the better part of the day — until his evening workout. At nights he focuses on boxing techniques and works on the light and heavy bags, quick footwork and strength and conditioning.
He doesn’t go out at night and flirt with the frills of teenage party life.
“I try to keep my body very healthy and try to be very dedicated,” Balderas said. “I stay away from parties and stay away from liquor.”
As for his prowess in the ring, Balderas said his best trait is adapting to a fight within the first few minutes.
“I can figure out my opponent in the first moments of a fight,” he said. “Another thing is my ability to react to a punch.”
Balderas won’t have to box in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials because of a series of matches he won over the last 10 months in the World Series of Boxing. He fought in Chattanooga, Tennessee, last December and won five matches in five days. That landed him the opportunity to fight in seven different countries from January to June. He never lost a match. In fact, he won unanimously in every one, earning enough points along the way to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team without having to go through the rigors of Trials. He was the first U.S. boxer to qualify for the 2016 Games.
The news was so big that it was a family affair at the press conference in Reno, Nevada, where he had 12 family members by his side for the announcement.
While Balderas fought all over the world, he still had the dubious task of completing his classwork for the final half of his senior year at Santa Maria High School. Balderas said his counselor helped get him assignments to be completed, but there was some drawback from some teachers.
“I had a couple of teachers that didn’t think it was right for me to focus on sports and not school, but I had some that respected my wish to follow my dream,” Balderas said.
Balderas completed his senior year and walked across the stage with his classmates last spring to get his diploma.
Balderas said he would continue to train in Santa Maria until he has to report to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for final training sessions before making the trip to Rio, a place he’s never been.
“I’m excited to go down there,” Balderas said.
Boxing has always been around the Balderas family, but Carlos never got serious until his troubled behavior led him to the sport. The family has a sparring ring at their home and would often break out the gloves and have friendly fights.
The Balderas family is steeped in their faith.
“My family has a lot of faith in God, and my uncle is a pastor,” Carlos said. “We’re a real religious family, and we always go to church every Sunday and Thursday.”
Balderas said when the Olympic Games are finished, he plans on returning to Santa Maria to rest and relax.
And not long after, he said, he’ll trade in his amateur status to become a professional.
Not bad for a first-generation American who landed in this sport by trying to overcome the troublesome problems of a 7-year-old.
Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 17 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.