Houston boxer aims for Olympic gold
Marlen Esparza hopes to turn pressure into victory in London
It's Monday evening inside a sweltering gym in east Houston, and you'd never know Marlen Esparza is just weeks away from making Olympic history.
Through the jabs, the rounds, and the sweat -- Esparza works. However, the Olympic jitters have already hit.
"For a while, it was nerves, like not wanting to go because I was so nervous," said Esparza. "Now, it's more of anxiety and anticipation. I'm getting really close and I just think it's a good idea to fight now."
Esparza has been boxing since she was 11 years old. Most of her training takes place inside the Fighter Nation gym in the Woodforest neighborhood of east Houston. She's battled boys and stereotypes for more than a decade.
Boxing legend Termite Watkins runs Fighter Nation and said he always knew the now 22-year-old Esparza had what it takes to be special.
"She is greatness," Watkins said. "She is incredible. I've never seen anyone work as hard as she does."
The hard work paid off earlier this year when Esparza won the U.S. Olympic women's boxing trials. The victory put her on top of the U.S. team and made her part of the first group of female boxers ever to fight for Olympic gold.
"I think being one of the first women to do it just makes everything extra special," said Esparza.
But even after all the wins and guidance from her coach Rudy Silva, Esparza said the reality of being an Olympian still has not hit her.
"I'm the kind of person where it doesn't hit me until it's happening," Esparza said. "So, I'm really hoping for that feeling. Because it hasn't hit me yet. I'm really hoping to get that from the opening ceremony."
Esparza's family will travel with her to London. There will be watch parties back in Houston, too. No doubt all those guys she's fought along the way will be there watching.
"I promise you, they're going to be sitting just like me and just like everyone else saying, 'There's Marlen Esparza. Isn't she great! She's one of the greatest fighters we've ever seen,'" Watkins said .
"I know I'm going to have a lot of fans in Houston," said Esparza. "Houston is strong when it comes to support. I think it's going to be insane. I hope everyone is going to get excited about it."
From commercials to features during NBC's coverage, viewers will soon see the Houston fighter with the million-dollar smile almost everywhere. However, with greatness comes the expectation of Olympic gold.
Esparza likes it that way. She said the more pressure, the better she battles.
"I do way better when I'm under pressure for some odd reason," Esparza said. "I feel like my mind is going to explode when it's happening, but when I get out, I think that was awesome. This is the ultimate pressure and I'm just going to embrace it. I'm not going to start hyperventilating. This is supposed to happen. I think from there, my mind and body will take over. I think that's the way it's supposed to be. I think that's why I was born like this."
Preparation also helps. Esparza said she's stronger, smarter, and more prepared for the Olympics that at any other time or fight in her life.
"I'm not too young to be naive or make mistakes. I definitely feel this is the best I can possibly get," she said.
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