Meet Naomi Graham

By Jamie Lynn Miller | Jan. 31, 2019, 11:12 a.m. (ET)

With Championship medals from India, Spain and Poland and fierce performances against Canada, Germany and Ireland, the 2018 Under Armour Elite Female Boxer of the Year Naomi Graham is becoming an international boxing sensation. “Sometimes you work hard and it goes unnoticed,” says the 29-year-old middleweight. “Winning this made me feel like everyone’s noticing my hard work! It makes me want to work even harder this coming year. “


Rising star aside, you won’t find much about Naomi online, or across social media. “Yeah, I’m kind of new to the sport,” says Naomi, who first started boxing in 2014. “And I guess I train a lot,” she adds, almost apologetic for the conspicuous absence of self-promotion. Staying on top of her game doesn’t leave much time for tweeting.


The youngest of six kids, Naomi grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina—home to an Army base, a bunch of boxing gyms, and “not much else,” she reports.  “Fayetteville doesn’t really have anything. It’s pretty rough,” she says. “If you have dreams, it’s hard to start them there. I knew I needed to move to accomplish my goals.”


One of her older sisters boxed—she eventually had 14 pro fights--and by the age of nine, Naomi wanted to box too. “But my mom wouldn’t let me,” she says, with a chuckle, “because I was the youngest. She just kept saying ‘no.’” Naomi could go the gym and watch the practices, but she couldn’t hit the bags. “The coach would come to our house and train us, but I wasn’t allowed to hit anything or anybody.”   


Her adolescent years meant try outs for school sports like basketball, track, even color guard and dance team. “My mom was by herself and didn’t always have transportation, so I couldn’t get to the practices,” she says. “I made all the teams, but I had to quit.”


With money and resources tight, Naomi knew she’d have to provide for herself. At age 14, she got a job at Sonic Burgers, but too many shifts left found her dozing off in class. As new hardships arose, Naomi faced the toughest year of her life. From that experience, however, her disciplined mental training—which she applies in the ring—began to take shape.


“I was homeless for about a year,” she shares. No one realized it, however; she’d go to friends’ houses for dinner whenever invited, and just kept her situation to herself. “I like to handle things on my own,” says Naomi, quietly.  “No one knows my hardships. I’m still like that.”


During the course of that year she spent a lot of time ‘thinking,’ she says, a habit she’s still known for: “Teammates and coaches will notice me staring off into space, lost in thought.”

And she resolved to change her circumstances.


“I decided life had more in store for me than being homeless,” she says. “I became determined to make something of myself. No matter what happened, I was going to get there.”


In joining the Army, Naomi found a realistic way to achieve certain goals: pursue her associate’s degree in medical specialties; develop skills for work in a medical field; and ultimately, find her way into the World Class Athlete Program, or WCAP, military acronym for exemplary soldier-athletes.


But first, Naomi Graham had to box.


She wandered into the local Cobra Gym, and sought out a trainer to give her tips. After winning her first three fights on her own, she went to inquire about joining WCAP; as luck would have it, she’d been stationed in Fort Carson, Colorado, right next to the WCAP facilities.


“They told me ‘no,’” she recalls, with a laugh, “I had to be nationally ranked first.” She continued on her own until she beat one of the WCAP boxers during an All-Army competition.

This time, the WCAP coaches said ‘yes.’


Like any deep thinker turned boxer, she appreciates what boxing teachers her about herself. “For me, it starts outside the ring. It’s taught me patience, and matured me. Through boxing, there’s growth in all areas at all times.”


“There’s a feeling I get knowing I’m doing something great with my life,” she continues. “And boxing keeps me sane. Anything I was going through, anything in life, I could go to a gym and get a release.”


When asked about her record, once again, Naomi sounds apologetic. “I don’t really know my numbers,” she says. She remembers the losses, though. They taught her to train her mind.


“I never thought I lost because that person was better,” she explains. “I always knew it was mental. And my coaches always agreed. They told me I needed to believe in myself more.”


Naomi discovered meditation. What started as five minutes of focused breathing and a nearly blank mind grew to twelve minutes, plus visualization. “I started to see what I wanted to do in the ring—the medals, the pacing, how my best performance would look, no matter who it was against.”


“Meditation has done a lot for me,” she says. “I have a better understanding of my talent, and I’m way more confident. My coaches have noticed the difference too. I believe in myself more.”


And when things get tough in the ring, she digs down deep.  “I think of the things I’ve been through in life, and I say, ‘If I got through that, I can win this fight.’”

 

Outside the ring, life has its simple pleasures, as well as dreams that didn’t quite come true. “I dance all the time! I actually thought I was going to be a backup dancer at one point,” says Naomi, with a chuckle. “I feel music through me when I’m dancing, whatever the steps.”


Dancing helps her foot movement, too. “My feet are a lot faster than the average person in my weight class,” Naomi observes. “I catch on fast when Coach Billy or Coach Kay shows us something new.”


With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, her feet are moving faster than ever.


How would it feel to win the Gold?


“It would be a very emotional day,” says Naomi, as though she’s already pictured herself on the podium.  “I’d be proving to myself, and family and friends, that you can do anything you want in life. You can go from absolutely nothing to being on top of the world, and you’re strong enough to overcome the hardships.”


Already, the question has sparked the visualization. “I could just feel it right there. More than words could say.”

 

Copyright © 2019 Jamie Lynn Miller All Rights Reserved

 

About the author

Freelance writer Jamie Lynn Miller is a rock climber, skier, and all-around adventurer. As an almost-Level 2 Official well-versed in boxing conditioning, Jamie is passionate about the stories behind the sport.


Her work has appeared in national publications including Sierra MagazineWaterway GuideMen’s Health,Women’s Adventure, and Climbing Magazine, as well as the Dominican Republic-based Lifestyle Cabarete.


For more from Jamie, please visit jamielynnmiller.contently.comShe can be reached at jamielynnmillerthefirst@gmail.com or on instagram, @jamielynnink