USA Today Sports

When the second U.S. Olympic trials for women’s boxing begins Monday in Memphis, many of the sport’s top athletes who missed an opportunity four years ago will return to fight for a second chance at Olympic gold.

Despite a stacked field of 24 — eight in each of the three Olympic weight classes — perhaps none is in a better position to do so than Marlen Esparza.

Esparza, a 5-3 flyweight from Houston who trains out of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, was the first American to qualify for women’s boxing for the sport’s inaugural Olympics in 2012.

As a result, Esparza was heralded as the center of the women’s boxing world. She had the titles — six consecutive national championships leading up to the Games — and the sponsorships — Nike, Coca-Cola and Covergirl — the likes of which were and still are generally unheard of in her sport.

But she came up short in London, returning with a bronze medal and a lot of uncertainty.

“I had this master plan that I was going to get my gold medal, start school right after, finish and go from there,” Esparza, 26, told USA TODAY Sports during a phone interview between training sessions in Colorado. “When that didn’t happen, I kept trying to fix that plan, and I just didn’t feel right. About four or five months before nationals came around again in 2013, I had to make a decision: start training full time and get back into it 100%, or let someone take my spot.”

After the Olympics, Esparza took months away from the sport that had been her sanctuary since she was 12, “feeling depressed” the whole time, she said.

Leading up to the 2013 nationals, she still wasn’t training as hard as she had before the London Olympics, but she beat Virginia Fuchs 2-1, and a Cuban coach, Pedro Roque Otano, was watching.

Otano, then in the recently created position of USA Boxing International Teaching Coach, invited Esparza to live and work with him at the U.S. Training Center a month later.

“He said he thought he could make me into a gold medalist,” Esparza said. “So there was my answer, and I fell right back into it like I had never stopped.”

Getting back into the gym every day returned a structure to Esparza’s life that had been missing. To hear Esparza talk about what boxing has given her, it’s easy to understand why ESPN featured her in a video for a celebration of Hispanic Heritage month, why CNN, The Atlantic and Vogue also have covered her successes.

Esparza has a wide smile and disarms with a childlike combination of frankness and bubbliness. She’s articulate — Esparza was a speaker in Deloitte’s “Team USA Road Show” — and has no problem talking through the low parts of her career.

Otano left USA Boxing in the spring of 2014, leaving Esparza without a consistent coach.

She had intermittent sparring partners and coaches USA Boxing would bring in for camps, but Esparza primarily relied on her strength and conditioning coach and her own boxing IQ when she went to work out.

The time alone was tough, but the solitude did wonders for Esparza, who still felt wayward after 2012.

“I actually won (2014) worlds with just a few sparring sessions and a strength and conditioning coach,” she said. “It took a lot of weight off my shoulders to know that I could do that, but it took a lot of trust. You just have to trust that you’re doing the best you can. You have to trust that you’re good enough.”

Now she returns to the Olympic trials with one of the most impressive resumés of all 24 boxers, second only to No. 1-seeded middleweight and 2012 Olympic gold medalistClaressa Shields. Still, Esparza is the only No. 1 seed who’s also a reigning world champion.

Fellow flyweight Christina Cruz and former No. 1 middleweight Franchon Crews say the flyweight division is the sport’s most competitive, but Esparza is certain she’s wearing a target on her back in and out of the ring.

“To be honest, people aren’t so happy for me this time around,” Esparza said. “The other boxers and coaches and people I didn’t even know, the first time it happened, were like, ‘Oh, here’s somebody bringing attention and good things to boxing!’ Now it’s like, ‘Oh, here’s Marlen back again — she thinks she’s this, she thinks she’s that, nobody else gets this, nobody else gets that.’ It’s become more envious and hateful.”

Esparza counts Crews, a self-described blue-collar boxer whose main sponsor is a dental center in Maryland called Smile Frederick Orthodontics, as one of her few close friends in the boxing world.

Crews understands Esparza’s sullied attitude toward the boxing community in the USA. It’s a diverse circle of women with vastly different backgrounds, none of whom fights for a paycheck, because, like in many female Olympic sports, that paycheck is generally non-existent.

Esparza is head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to sponsorships as well as international titles.

“It’s a gift and a curse, because when we first started we didn’t have the Olympics, you know what I mean? We didn’t know anything but just fighting, and you get older and it comes with more responsibility,” Crews said. “Especially Marlen and her situation, being a world figure now in boxing. It’s just like she just deals with things I couldn’t relate to.”

Come Monday, Esparza will have to deal with a slew of former and current national champions, including Virginia Fuchs and Cruz. Esparza is spending the week before trials in solitude, not talking to anyone and not thinking about anything but boxing, anything but winning a gold medal in less than a year’s time.

“It feels like the first time again,” Esparza said. “It’s completely different in every single way. Physically, mentally, my trainer, how I operate, how I think, the people around me, how I juggle everything. I figured myself out and grew up a lot.

“I learned just because you do something once and don’t do everything perfectly doesn’t mean you can’t do it a second or even third time if you feel like it. What do they say, ‘Don’t mistake a single failure for a final defeat?’”

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