Going the distance

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Marlen Esparza won Olympic bronze in 2012 -- becoming the first U.S. woman to medal in the sport's first Olympic appearance.

I grew up watching boxing with my dad when I was really little. He often worked out of town, which meant he’d be gone for weeks or even months at a time. But when he was home, watching boxing was what we did together.

My dad would take my brothers to the gym, and I would tag along. When I got old enough to speak up, I started asking if I could try boxing. But it wasn’t until I was 11 and my older brother didn’t want to go that I convinced my dad to let me take my little brother.

After some persistence, I convinced the trainer there, Rudy Silva, to work with me. We made a deal he’d train me properly as long as I didn’t complain and I did well in school. He ended up coaching me for 12 years, right up through the London Olympics, where I earned a bronze medal in the women's flyweight division.

Earlier this year, though, I moved into the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and I’m now coached by USA Boxing's Pedro Roque. You're pretty isolated from the outside world here, but I love it. I’m a homebody. Everything I could need is right there. If something is wrong with me, sports medicine is right there. The food is amazing. And there’s always this competitive tension so you never forget you’re on a mission.

Marlen Esparza

Marlen Esparza often puts in three or four training sessions a day at the Olympic Training Center.

It’s tough for boxing since the United States Olympic Committee only has so much money to fund each sport, and the reality is we don’t deliver a lot of medals. If every boxer won gold we could at most come back with 13 medals. A single swimmer can get nine. But the USOC did just open up five more beds for us.

We live and breathe our sport here. We work out every day except Sundays. On light weeks, we might work out twice a day: cardio, strength and conditioning at 10 a.m., and boxing at 4 p.m. Normally, though, it’s three or four sessions a day, starting at 7 a.m., with just an hour or two in between the sessions for sleeping and eating.

Right now I’m focusing on the technical aspects of my boxing. My coaches tell me, “We know you can run 10 miles. We know you can punch a lot. We need you to be smarter.” I was raised with a strong work ethic, so being in shape has never been the challenge. I have all the tools. I just need to put it together to make sure everything is picture perfect.

They’ve totally changed the scoring system for boxing since London, which means I have to change my entire style. We used to be scored on a point system where you get points for each punch or jab. Now it’s just 10 points if you win the round, nine if you lose, and eight if you get knocked down.

Ultimately, it’s going to be the best thing for me. The point system limited you as a fighter. You don’t have to think any more about how they just tapped you with a jab, and what you can do to match those points. The best fighter wins.

I’m 24 years old and I’m nowhere near doing anything “normal.” I don’t have a lot of friends or boyfriends. I don’t get to experience a lot of things, and if I think about it a lot I feel like I’m missing out. But at the same time I get the chance to experience things that other people don’t get to.

Boxing isn’t a game, or even just a sport; it’s a way of living and you have to stay focused all the time. You can’t drink and go out and do all those things because it takes a toll, and when you’re in the ring you’re going to feel it.

Being a part of a sport that’s new in the Olympics -- women’s boxing was only added in 2012 -- can be hard mentally because you feel like you’re always fighting. But the achievements are so much sweeter. Every time you break through something for the first time you do it not just for yourself, but for everybody. It’s for that little girl asking me for a picture. She’s good -- she doesn’t have to worry about it anymore.

I was the first American female in boxing to qualify for the Olympics, the first to step into the ring, and the first to medal. No one can take that away from me. But for now, it’s all about the U.S. championships starting on Saturday in Spokane, Wash. I’ve won seven national championships, but that doesn’t mean I take it lightly. My main goal is not to win my fights and look good, but to make a statement.

When it comes time for the 2016 games in Rio, I want it to be clear that I’m the one who should be carrying the sport forward.