London 2012: Olympics force hard choices for those who fell short of making team

July 15, 2012

Whenever Tyrieshia Douglas steps in a boxing ring, she doesn’t think about her troubled past and certainly not her unpredictable future.

The 23-year-old fighter instead envisions herself standing in a dark alley. One way in and one way out. Douglas is hungry — hungrier than her adversary, she says — and there’s just one piece of fried chicken to be had.

“I’m going to do whatever I can to get out the alley, and I’m gonna eat that last piece of chicken,” she says. “No one’s getting in my way. No one’s getting my chicken.”

When Douglas landed in Spokane, Wash., last February, she could smell the chicken. One of the top performers entering the U.S. Olympic boxing trials, she’d spent the previous three years working specifically for that moment. She stopped attending classes at Prince George’s Community College and uprooted her chaotic life from the District to Baltimore so she could focus on training. Women’s boxing was making its Olympic debut at the 2012 Games, and Douglas wanted to be a part of it.

“I gave up everything to be the one who would represent the USA,” she said.

As a 112-pound flyweight, Douglas was seeded second in the tournament, one of the favorites to earn a spot on Team USA. She laced up her gloves for six fights in six days. And on the sixth day, after three rounds, the judges said she lost in a lopsided decision to a young Houston woman named Marlen Esparza.

Douglas fought back tears, feeling like boxing had betrayed her.

“I’d never seen her like that,” said Calvin Ford, Douglas’s coach. “You really can’t say nothing to make her feel better.”

Douglas had reached the crossroads, the one faced by every gold medalist, Olympian and Olympic hopeful: Stick with the sport for four more years and take aim at the next Games? Or move on and find a new career?

Few get the call

There are 530 athletes who will represent the United States at the Summer Games in London, which begin July 27. But there are far more who tried and failed, who spent years working and training and are now scrambling and regrouping. In swimming alone, 1,829 athletes competed in the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha; just 49 of them will go to London.

The rest join the large field of athletes who face the inevitable question: What’s next?

Decathlete Bryan Clay was less than an hour removed from one of the most disappointing meets of his life. Clay won silver at the 2004 Games and gold four years later in Beijing. But after stumbling at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials last month in Eugene, Ore., Clay, 32, knew he wouldn’t be competing in London, likely his final shot.

What’s next? a reporter asked.

“The next move is to just get refocused,” Clay said.

Years earlier, growing up in Hawaii, Clay was given a failing grade in P.E. by a sixth-grade teacher. Clay’s athletic skills were already apparent, but that wasn’t the point.

“He was trying to teach me I couldn’t rely on athletics alone,” Clay said. “It’s something I’ve never forgotten.”

The U.S. Olympic Committee tries to make sure all the athletes under its banner realize that a second career awaits. Keith Bryant, the director of the USOC’s communications division, said athletes have seemed more cognizant in recent years of their future beyond sports.

“Sometimes they do have such tunnel vision on making the team, making the medal stand, and that focus is part of why they’re so good,” Bryant said. “So what we try to do is widen those blinders just a little bit and encourage them to think about what they want to do when this is over.”

The USOC has been providing some form of job placement assistance since 1977 but ramped up its programs and efforts following the 1996 Games. While some of the work is aimed to aid athletes during training, the USOC also helps its competitors transition into new fields. The newest endeavor is called the Team USA Career Program, which includes a partnership with human-resources giant Adecco and provides seminars, consultations with career coaches, and instruction on résumé-building and networking.

Because competing isn’t a lucrative endeavor for the vast majority of athletes, Clay was always thinking about finances. It was an ever-present stress, knowing that a small injury or one bad season had a direct impact on paying bills.

“And I knew that the longer that I did this, that was the longer I had to wait before I could start putting money toward retiring,” he said. “It might mean I couldn’t retire until I was 70 or 80.”

Clay and his agency, The Factory, have worked on building him into a brand, one that extends beyond his athletic career. Even after his 12th-place finish at the trials, his sponsors said they wanted to stick with him. They still wanted him in London, representing their business, telling his story and shaking hands.

“Yeah, I won a gold medal. Big deal,” Clay said. “I still have to pay rent, still have to change diapers, still have to mow the lawn. In the grand scheme of things, the gold medal is awesome, but to live a full life, you need a lot more.”

Boxing serves a purpose

For Douglas, waiting around for 2016 wasn’t an option. She couldn’t fathom four more years of training, of sweating bills, of having so few assurances. Plus, she felt the judges’ decision at the trials wasn’t fair, and she no longer trusted the governing body charged with selecting the Olympic team.

She returned from Spokane, numbed by anger and shame. Her amateur career was over, and turning professional was a strong option. In the meantime, she worked a security job back in Washington, commuting to and from Baltimore.

“There’s nothing for me in D.C.,” she said.

Washington was home to nightmares. Douglas says she was molested when she was younger. Her parents were on and off drugs and in and out of jail. Douglas entered foster care at the age of 8 and was raised by a rotating cast of family friends, cousins and strangers.

It wasn’t until she put on a pair of gloves, though, that she felt at ease. When a street fight put 16-year-old Douglas in juvenile court, a judge told her to find a better outlet for her anger.

“Since then,” she said, “boxing’s been my life.”

A few weeks after returning from Spokane, Douglas finally poked her head in the old YMCA building. Inside is Ford’s Upton Boxing Center. Douglas refers to boxing as her “first love,” “my mother and my father,” and “my way out.” So no one was surprised when she showed up that day with a gym bag in her hands.

Ford urged her to take more time off. “No,” she told. “Let’s get this pro thing going.”

“There you go,” Ford said. “My baby girl is back.”

The pain lingers

The average age on Team USA this summer is 27. The majority of athletes are appearing in their first Olympics and most won’t be competing full-time past the age of 30. Twenty-year-old Helen Maroulis knows most female wrestlers peak a little later, but that knowledge has done little to temper her disappointment. The three-time national champion from Rockville lost in an upset at the Olympic trials in April. Three months later, the pain has yet to subside.

“I’m trying to use this as opportunity to not feel defined by wrestling or defined by a loss,” she said. “It’s extremely hard to do when four years comes down to one day. To me, that’s been the hardest thing to process.”

Once the shock of the loss subsided, Maroulis told friends she was finished with wrestling. “In my mind, I was retired,” she said. But a week later, she was training again.

At least Maroulis has the option of continuing. Though all athletes eventually must contemplate second careers, in some cases the timetable is out of their hands.

“Clearly, if the Olympics were still in the picture, I’d be training and playing right now,” said Ashley Hansen, one of the top college softball players in the country the past four years. “But I’m not. Yeah, it’s devastating, but that’s the reality.”

The Stanford infielder was so good, she was invited to try out for the U.S. Olympic softball team in 2008, when she was still in high school. Growing up in Arizona, a softball hotbed, playing in the Summer Games had always been her dream.

Softball first appeared at the Olympics in 1996. But baseball and softball were both removed from the program for these London Games, the first sports in 69 years to be dropped. In August 2009, Hansen was on a conference call where she learned the sport wouldn’t return in 2016.

“My dreams were shattered right in front of me,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever fully get over that it was taken away. It felt like I was so close. I guess I was born at a bad time.”

Instead of living in the Olympic Village in London and preparing for a gold medal game, one of the world’s best softball players will instead enter the workforce this summer, beginning a new job as a business development associate for Inflection, a Silicon Valley technology startup.

“Obviously, I wish I was heading to London pretty soon, but that’s not the case,” she said. “You can’t dwell on what could’ve been. You have to live in reality and the reality is there aren’t many options for me to continue playing softball and support myself or someday support a family.”

Last week, Hansen received an e-mail asking if she’s interesting in pitching for the corporate softball team.

Pressing forward

“Jab! Jab! Jab!” Ford yells at his pupil as Douglas works a punching bag. Like the sport, the gym has few frills. The floor is still painted with basketball lines, and heavy bags dangle from where basketball goals once hung. It’s hot inside, and there’s a giant ring at midcourt.

Douglas has been in training for several weeks, and Ford cuts her no slack. The two share a close bond, and Douglas calls her coach “Dad” or “Daddy.”

Douglas has a hard shell: She has 20 tattoos, defined muscles, broad shoulders and shortly cropped bleached hair. Her language is colorful, even if her smile is soft. Every day, she’s trading punches with men who tower over her 5-foot-3 frame.

She is scheduled to make her pro debut at the Renaissance in downtown Washington on Aug. 4. Though she won’t be in London, the Olympics still motivate her: She wants another fight with Esparza, this time as professionals.

“I’m praying that she wins, that she put that gold medal around her . . . neck,” Douglas said. “By time she comes out, I’ll be this big-time pro. She’ll be an Olympic gold medalist. We going to have to fight.”

There are adjustments, of course. As a pro, she’s wearing eight-ounce gloves, instead of 10, which gives her punches more impact. Her amateur matches consisted of four two-minute rounds, while the pro fights can last as long as 10 rounds. She’s also learning to fight without headgear.

It’s plenty of change, but Douglas figures she has no other options.

“My whole life was going to London, putting a gold medal around my neck for Team USA,” she said, “But that didn’t go through. So then it was on to Plan B.”

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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