By Scott McDonald | Nov. 08, 2019, 12:33 p.m. (ET)

(L-R) Naomi Graham, Jessica Paola Caicedo (Colombia), Flavia Figueiredo (Brazil) and Tammara Thibetault (Canada) on the podium following the women's boxing middle category final at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 2, 2019 in Lima, Peru.

 

Long before Naomi Graham became a world championships bronze medalist in boxing, she was a little girl in North Carolina who liked to do battle with her five siblings. They’d fight for space in mom’s car or roughhouse in the driveway during games of pickup basketball.

One day, when Graham was 9, her older sister let her tag along on a trip to the local boxing gym. Though Graham’s mother said she was too young to box herself, the youngster was determined to one day battle opponents that way, too.

“I told myself when I get older that I would box,” she said.

Now Graham is a top contender to the make the 2020 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team, having won a world bronze medal in 2018, a Pan American Games silver medal earlier this summer and then last month reached the quarterfinals of the 2019 world championships.

She is also an active member of the U.S. Army.

“I told myself I wanted to be part of something greater,” Graham said. “I wanted to do something big, and I wanted to give back. I really wanted to serve my country.”

It was after joining the Army that Graham finally made good on the promise to become a boxer.

She left home in February 2013 for basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and then moved to Fort Lee, Virginia, for Army Advanced Individual Training (AIT). She’s now a staff sergeant (E-6) assigned to 89 Bravo as an ammunition specialist.

Meanwhile, a year after Graham entered the service, she finally took up boxing. She became good, and she did it quickly. She fought in All-Army bouts and qualified for the 2014 National PAL Championships, which she won. She won it again in 2015, and that set her up for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.

She only had 10 fights before the trials in 2015, and not making the 2016 Olympic team has stuck with her.

“Tokyo 2020 has been my focus, and it started when I lost at the trials in 2015,” she said.

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Graham remains on active duty, with her role essentially being to issue ammunition to different units as they go to the range, and sometimes she’s on the range with them. When a unit goes into the field for exercises, 89B verifies the rounds are not live.

At the same time, she trains in the World Class Athlete Program. As a boxer, her daily routine consists of either strength or cardiovascular training in the morning, a boxing workout after lunch and sparring in the evening.

When talking about the Army, Graham said there are two words that come to mind.

“Those two words are discipline and patience,” she said. “For discipline, you have to get up every day and do things you may not want to do.”

As for patience, she said dealing with people every day, and taking instructions from above, requires patience.

Simultaneously, she says patience and discipline apply to her boxing career as well.

“Patience is key at times you get frustrated,” Graham said, “but you still need to carry out instruction and be teachable.”

The discipline comes when the 30-year-old Graham is invited out for drinks and pizza with friends. She’s learned to turn it down and eat better — all part of her 2020 vision.

“It kind of becomes a lonely life,” she said. “You have to put the right things in your body, and I’m dedicated to the sport and it doesn’t faze me. When I was younger I wanted to go, but said, ‘No I can’t do that.’”

Graham fights in the 75 kg. middleweight class and is currently training in California before going back to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for final tune-ups before the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, which will be Dec. 7-15 in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

“In my mind a lot of the work has been done to get ready for the trials,” Graham said. “I continue to get better each time. Whether I won or lost, I always took something from the fight, and I’ve been staying active.”

Though Graham has never deployed to foreign countries or war zones, she said she was scheduled to deploy before she was accepted into the WCAP program.

“WCAP allows me to train and do what I love, and serve my country,” she said. “They give me what I need for travel, equipment and other things necessary to be successful. There are a lot of people out there having to pay their own way, and I’m grateful getting to serve my country and box.”

Scott McDonald is a writer from Houston who has covered sports for various outlets since 1998. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.