Every so often, when Queen Underwood slips on her Team USA gear, she is stopped and congratulated on her accomplishment. One problem: "They think I'm a wrestler," says Underwood. "They're surprised when I tell them I'm a boxer." Can't blame them, really. Women's freestyle wrestling has been an Olympic event since 2004; women's boxing makes its inaugural appearance this summer. Last week in Spokane, 24 women took part in the first U.S. female Olympic boxing trials. Each of the three winners—lightweight Underwood, flyweight Marlen Esparza and middleweight Claressa Shields—will need a top eight finish in May's world championships to earn a trip to London. "And when we do," says Underwood, "I think we are going to win three gold medals."
Indeed, in women's boxing America's got talent. Underwood, 27, is a five-time national champion and won bronze at the 2010 world championships. Esparza, 22, is a six-time national champ in two weight classes, with a bronze from the '06 worlds. Shields, 16, entered the trials unheralded before storming to four straight wins. "These young ladies are so professional in their approach," says U.S. coach Joe Zanders. "If you tell them to be at the gym at seven, they are there at 6:45. They expect to get to the podium."
Like any fledgling Olympic sport, women's boxing is working out a few kinks. Men compete in 10 weight divisions; in London the women will be crammed into three. That has necessitated some extreme diets among the boxers. Underwood dropped nine pounds to squeeze under the 132-pound lightweight limit. Esparza chugged protein shakes and ate four to five times a day to get her body adjusted to the move up to the 112-pound flyweight limit. And those were the success stories. Andrecia Wasson, the 2010 world champion at welterweight (152 pounds), was eliminated at the trials after three fights at middleweight (165 pounds). Zanders is optimistic that if women's boxing is a success in London, the IOC will add new divisions. "If you line up all the women's sports, this is the one people will want to watch," says Zanders. "The Olympics are going to be a showcase."
As the U.S. boxers look ahead, they remain mindful of the past. Last week Zanders stressed to his team members the importance of seizing this opportunity. "I told them the spirit of a lot of women is with them," says Zanders. "How many women over the years deserved this shot and didn't get it? How many were unable to fulfill their dream? They are [able], and I believe they will take advantage of it."
READY TO RUMBLE
When women's boxing weighs in for the first time at the Olympics this summer, these will be the fighters to beat in the three weight divisions:
Flyweight (112 pounds)
Ren Cancan, China
The reigning world champion, Ren (left), 24, has dominated the division for two years. "The Chinese have done a good job playing to what the judges look for," says Christy Halbert, chair of USA Boxing's women's task force. "She's long with her punches and very active."
Lightweight (132 pounds)
Katie Taylor, Ireland
A two-time AIBA female boxer of the year and three-time world champ, the 25-year-old Taylor is as good as it gets. "She is a textbook international- style boxer," says Halbert. "She's versatile, she can move, she can stand and exchange. There is not much she can't do."
Middleweight (165 pounds)
Mary Spencer, Canada
A two-time 145-pound champ, Spencer, 27, won a third world title at 165 in 2010. "She is very tall [5'11"]," says Halbert. "She's one of the fiercest competitors I've seen, and with her experience she's often able to get ahead in the first round and stay ahead."
JED JACOBSOHN (UNDERWOOD)
ROYAL PERFORMANCE In Spokane five-time national champ Underwood (red) won her four bouts to take the lightweight title.
AFP/GETTY IMAGES (CANCAN)