More Girls and Women Are Stepping Into the Ring of Amateur Boxing

Madison Marshall, 14, trains for an all-female amateur boxing event at Rosecroft Raceway in Maryland.
By Dagny Salas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 15, 2009

Madison Marshall, boxed into a corner of the ring, was getting hit over and over again when her trainer, Jennifer Salinas, yelled, "Get back in the center, get back in the center!"

Breathing hard and with her ponytail bouncing, 14-year-old Maddie and her sparring partner were soon dancing around the ring again, trading punches. Earlier, her father, Tate Marshall, had a more urgent concern for the trainer: "Is she breathing?"

"Yeah," Salinas said.

Maddie was diagnosed with asthma last year before she started boxing, but her infrequent attacks haven't stopped her from training for her first amateur match.

Most days this summer, Maddie has gotten up at 5 a.m. in her Manassas home to train at one of the gyms that her father owns in Northern Virginia. The routine is always the same: Get her hands taped, slip on boxing gloves the size of her face and wait for Vaseline to be smeared on her cheeks and lips (it prevents cuts and helps punches slide off). In amateur boxing, the goal is to throw as many punches as possible. For girls, a fight is three 90-second rounds.

The punches come fast.

"You try not to get hit, but you always get hit," Maddie said. "It doesn't really hurt. It just makes you want to hit back harder."

Maddie is one of 36 competitors in all-female amateur boxing matches Saturday at Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County. District-based promoter Wanda Bruce, who organized the fights, said the event is an opportunity for young female boxers to gain ring experience for higher levels of competition.

Until this week, when the International Olympic Committee decided to include the sport in the 2012 games in London, boxing had been the only Summer Olympics sport without female representation.

Bruce is the only promoter organizing all-female fights in the Washington area, said Luke Runion, the athletes' representative for the Potomac Valley Association, a USA Boxing committee. Competitions typically feature nine or 10 bouts, but Bruce is offering 18 to accommodate demand.

"More all-women's shows are cropping up around country," Runion said.

The decision to include women's boxing in the Olympics is like a "dream come true," Bruce said. More women have been getting involved in the historically male-dominated sport in the past decade.

Last year, 1,661 amateur female boxers and 28,539 amateur male boxers were registered to compete, according to USA Boxing, the national governing body for amateur boxing. In the Washington region, about 941 male boxers and almost 50 female boxers were registered.

Bruce started her company after working for years on the pro circuit. She sees the sport as an outlet for girls and young women. "If you're taught boxing, its not just how to box," Bruce said. "You have to be disciplined, you have to have good grades and you have to understand that it's not just, 'I'm going to box and beat people up.' "

Growing up, Maddie was active in cheerleading, lacrosse and gymnastics. But she said she has gravitated toward boxing and is open to pursuing it long term.

Training is physically punishing, and Maddie is often too tired afterward to hang out with friends. Her father said the sport has made her more mature and better able to cope with teenage drama.

"She handles things more like a young woman rather like an adolescent," he said. "The little things that'd normally really bug her now roll off her shoulders."

The rise in women's amateur boxing can be credited to the increasingly mainstream appeal of the sport, said Christy Halbert, a longtime boxing coach and head of the Women's Task Force for USA Boxing. She said that about 100,000 women in the United States participate in some form of boxing, whether at a gym or competitive levels. When women began to compete in boxing in the United States in 1993, Halbert said, they were barred from training in gyms, and male coaches refused to train them.

"It's hard for girls to find other girls in their skill set," said Julie Goldsticker, a spokeswoman for USA Boxing. "The more opportunities you have in tournaments, the more likely you are to stay interested in the sport."

Kieona Barnes, 22, will also make her debut at Rosecroft on Saturday. She is a night security officer and trains early in the morning after her shift. She said she began boxing five years ago to relieve stress, and she has noticed another benefit.

"When I have a bad day and I see young girls not hanging out on streets, and we're all in the gym together doing something positive," Barnes said, "it makes me smile."

As a teen, Barnes said, she was often hot-headed and sometimes skipped school. Boxing, she said, is humbling.

"When I began to learn about the sport, I found out boxing is technique," Barnes said. "Fighting, you can do anything, but boxing, you learn you have to throw it right."

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