Marlen Esparza wins by unanimous decision in her pro debut!
It’s OK to cry.
It is the first thing boxer Marlen Esparza would, if she somehow could go back in time, tell the 11-year-old version of herself who walked into Rudy Silva’s Elite Boxing Gym in Houston to train.
Crying might have released a lot of the heartache Esparza has carried. Now Esparza, 27, is embarking on a pro career, feeling stronger — and yet more vulnerable — than ever. She’s set to fight Rachel Sazoff in Indio, California, on Thursday, in a bout televised on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes.
As a child, Esparza was laser-focused on boxing. She had a hero in mind to emulate — Salvador Sanchez, a gifted Mexican fighter who died in a 1982 car accident.
“It was the first time I saw someone that I wanted to be like,” Esparza said, explaining that she watched Sanchez fight in old boxing videos purchased by her father, David, a Mexican immigrant who loved the sport.
“No puedes,” her father told her, repeatedly rejecting her entreaties.
Esparza eventually persuaded her father to let her box, and Silva agreed to train her under one condition.
“I’m going to train you like a boy,” Esparza recalled Silva telling her in 2000.
Tears weren’t welcome in the gym. Besides, at the start, boxing brought Esparza joy as she proved herself.
“I was one of those who didn’t believe in women’s boxing,” David Esparza said. “In her first fight, she convinced me. She had character; she was very brave, very aggressive. I’ve supported her ever since then.”
Esparza was so focused, she didn’t realize at first the backlash she engendered. Boys who lost sparring sessions against her sometimes quit. “I was too young, too naïve,” Esparza said of those early days. “The struggle wasn’t getting into the gym. I was just one of those kids who wanted it.”
That desire and her talent led to success. As Esparza moved into her teenage years, she became more aware of resentment.
“A lot of dismissal, a lot of disrespect,” she said. “I was [an] outcast all the time and I didn’t realize it until I got older.”
On the heels of winning her first national championship in 2005, becoming the youngest to do so at only 16, Esparza returned to whispers and mutterings from some people at her own gym.
“They said I was going to get pregnant and they didn’t understand why I was doing [boxing],” Esparza said. “It took a toll on my soul and my spirit.”
The drive to prove doubters and critics wrong was only partly satisfied at the 2012 London Olympics, where Esparza earned a bronze medal in the women’s flyweight division (112 pounds). Before the Games, Esparza’s long record of success had already generated considerable endorsements — and envy among some fellow boxers.
After 2012, Esparza moved on from Silva’s coaching, training at times on her own. She found that anger can be useful as fuel.
“I won my first world championship, which is arguably harder than the Olympics, by myself,” Esparza said of her 2014 title.
Laurie Hernandez is an Olympic gold medalist, a best-selling author and the youngest person ever to win “Dancing with the Stars.” But for many fans, it’s the 16-year-old’s hair that’s repeatedly stolen the show.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, the gymnast spoke about the heartwarming comments she’s received for owning her naturally curly hair in the limelight. The gymnast said her hair has garnered “a lot” of remarks and she shared one story that highlights the importance of representation.
“I went to visit a gym once and one of the parents came up to me and she was like, ‘You don’t understand how much it means to me and my daughter, you being Hispanic and not only that, but you wearing your curly hair on the floor. It makes my daughter comfortable to wear her curly hair,’” she told HuffPost. “And I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness! My heart.’ The daughter was younger than me [and] she was giggly the whole time.”
Hernandez says she’s very aware that her curls make her stand out.
“I do notice that it’s different coming across someone with curly hair and it does feel really nice to pass by someone and you’re like, ‘Wow, I really like your hair’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, I like yours’ and it’s like automatically this curly-haired friendship you just made,” Hernandez said. “Curly hair is a lot of fun because you can straighten it sometimes and wear it curly, but it’s definitely refreshing to see it curly.”
Hernandez takes the importance of representation to heart, and she often speaks about taking it upon herself to be a role model for young Latina gymnasts.
“Growing up I didn’t recognize too many Hispanic gymnasts, and there were a few but not necessarily in my generation,” she said. “So being able to go to the Olympics and represent Hispanics in that way meant a lot to me and I think I just want to show younger girls, ‘Look, it doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, Hispanic, you can do anything you set your mind to, even the Olympics.”
The Jefferson Awards Foundation is recognizing Hernandez for being an outstanding role model to today’s youth. She’ll be given the foundation’s award for Outstanding Service by a Young American 25 or Under on Wednesday.
Vote to take her into the final here: https://aausullivan.secure-platform.com/a/gallery/rounds/1/details/143