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108 Years Since Women Last Boxed In The Olympics, They Prepare A Return

Five-time U.S. national champion Queen Underwood listens to instructions from her coach Basheer Abdullah.
Tom Goldman
Five-time U.S. national champion Queen Underwood listens to instructions from her coach Basheer Abdullah.

Olympic history in the making is going on this week in Washington state. Two-dozen of the best female boxers in the country are in wintry Spokane with a goal of traveling to London in the summer.

That's the site of the first ever women's Olympic boxing competition. This week's Olympic trials help determine who goes.

It's been 108 years since women boxed in the Olympics. At the 1904 Summer Games in St. Louis, boxing for women was a "display event," not one of the counting, medal sports.

Now, it counts.

Wander into the Pend Oreille Pavilion at the Northern Quest Resort and Casino this week, and sounds of slot machines and roulette wheels give way to the thud of boxing gloves on bodies and the cheers for flurries of punch combinations. The women doing battle in the pavilion's boxing ring all have the same goal. But many followed different paths.

There's pint-sized Alex Love. She's 5-foot-1. She fights in the 112 flyweight division and probably would like to get in the ring with someone silly enough to describe her as pint-sized. Love grew up on a farm in Monroe, Wash., and took up boxing three years ago to cross-train for basketball.

Ultimately the ring held more allure than the court.

"[Boxing] is all on me," Love says after her first-round victory at the trials over Taversha Norwood from Georgia. "Basketball's a team sport," she says, adding, "you can make up all these excuses, even though you shouldn't. But in boxing, at the end of the day, it's you. You gave up; you quit; you didn't train hard."

Love defies the stereotypical boxer's life story: She had a stable childhood with loving parents who both worked, and she never had to prove herself on the streets.

"I've never been in a fight outside the ring," she laughs. "I just never have. After I got asked that question, I was like, man, I need to get in one!"

Claressa Shields might just oblige. The 16-year-old, 165-pound middleweight grew up brawling in Flint, Mich.

"I think [in] fifth grade I had fought a boy, and I slammed him and beat him up real bad," she says.

Shields started boxing at 11. She did it for her dad who spent time in prison. She wanted to make him happy, and let him live his boxing past through her.

This week he'd be happy. Shields has been the talk of the trials — a teenager who giggles about the socks she wears in the ring with pictures of Betty Boop on them and who staggers opponents with her fearsome punching.

Says Shields, "I'm a Christian. I don't ever think to kill nobody." But, she adds, "I'm out there fighting for blood. Not literally blood — I'm not thinking 'kill.' "

The only coach she's ever had, Jason Crutchfield, stands next to her and starts to laugh.

"I do," he says. "That's my job!"

Crutchfield is one of the men who has embraced women's boxing. But not all were gung-ho from the start. Take Basheer Abdullah, who coaches Love and one of the stars of the trials, Queen Underwood.

"I didn't want to see women in this sport," Abdullah says. He explains it's based on religious beliefs; he adheres to Islamic faith. But he also wanted to keep his job as a boxing coach with the U.S. Army. So he adapted when the Army's World Class Athlete Program accepted women. And he's glad he did.

"Oh, it was amazing. I was like 'wow.' There are great athletes in this [women's] sport. They're more focused ... they're coachable ... they're more determined ... they're more disciplined."

And more technically proficient than ever. Longtime coach and women's boxing advocate Christy Halbert watched from ringside this week as Claressa Shields dominated the top-ranked middleweight in the country, Franchon Crews of Baltimore, Md.

"She clearly has the weight of her shoulders and body behind her punches," Halbert says. She continues her analysis of Shields' technical skills. "She'll use long punches because they're easier for judges to see, rather than close-in punches. And she's got great accuracy because the majority of her punches are coming down the center. So instead of coming around the side with a hook, where she may not be making contact with the knuckle portion of the glove, she's coming right down the center. It's a faster and stronger way to connect with the opponent, and because she's able to do that with the knuckle portion of the glove, she's able to rack up a lot of points."

That kind of skill and ability is being celebrated at the resort this week. But those who've fought the long battle to get women's boxing to this point — people like Halbert — insist there's more to do.

"When the vote [by the IOC to include boxing] came back in August 2009," Halbert says, "it was a cause for celebration that we got in. But it was hard for some of us to celebrate knowing all of the boxers that would be left out."

The International Olympic Committee didn't exactly welcome women's boxing with open arms. It was more like the IOC dipping a toe in the water. Women's boxing was added to the Olympic program, but only in three weight classifications: 112 pounds, 132 pounds, 165 pounds. Halbert says in this country alone, about 3,000 women register as amateur boxers in 10 weight classes.

"The reason we have so many weight categories, generally," she says, "is to keep the sport safe, to make it fair to celebrate the diversity of the human body. When we just have three weight divisions, we're just limiting ourselves, and running the risk that boxers are gaining or losing too much weight to fit into those divisions."

For those who simply can't gain or lose enough, they've had to give up their Olympic dream.

Boxing's international governing body, the AIBA, is lobbying the IOC to get more women into the next Olympics in 2016.

For the lucky boxers at the trials with 2012 in their cross hairs, the weeding-out process doesn't end this week. The winners in the three weight divisions then have to finish in the top eight at the World Championships in China in May and June. Only then can the dream of London become a reality.

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Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on