AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. (AP) — Christina Cruz and Queen Underwood both devoted their lives to boxing several years before women had any hope of Olympic glory. They pursued their sport on love and faith, determined to be prepared for any opportunity to make a career out of fighting.

That opportunity arrives this week at the first U.S. Olympic team trials for women’s boxing. Over the next week at a resort-casino outside Spokane, 24 fighters will compete for just three spots on the national team and the chance to earn an Olympic berth at the world championships in China in May.

“I’ve been training for this moment for the last few years,” said Cruz, the 112-pound co-favorite from Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. “It’s been a long time, and I’m ready. The last five or six years, it’s been eat, sleep, boxing. Before I started boxing, I was just working as a secretary, supporting myself and trying to get by. I’m still trying to get by, but I feel like all those sacrifices are worth it now.”

Cruz and Underwood, the two-time national champion lightweight, are trying not to dwell on the history they’ll make this week when the fighters take the Northern Quest ring in USA uniforms and headgear for their four-round bouts. They’re all focused instead on the opportunities that materialized three years ago when the IOC finally added women’s boxing to its program at the London Games.

“We know it’s a part of history, but we’re all focusing the thoughts in our head,” said Underwood, who worked construction in Seattle to pay bills before her amateur ascent. “This is history, yeah. It’s only going to come around once, but this is still our job. I’m not going to get excited and relax now. We all came too far.”

The transformation of women’s boxing from a compelling sideshow into a serious sport has taken decades, and it’s still incomplete. After all, Hilary Swank won more gold playing a boxer in 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” than any real fighters have ever taken home from the Olympics.

U.S. National Coach Joe Zanders, who has coached amateurs of both sexes for 38 years, reminded the competitors Sunday just how the sport arrived at this auspicious point during a team meeting in a hotel ballroom.

“The spirit of a lot of women is in this room,” Zanders told the athletes. “A lot of women who never got the chance to box, who got too old and weren’t allowed to do it. Don’t forget about that.”

USA Boxing banned women’s competitions until a federal lawsuit in 1993, and the International Boxing Association (AIBA) only began overseeing the sport in 1994, holding its first world championships in 2001. Boxing was the only sport in the Summer Olympics without a female analogue until 2009, when the worldwide rise in popularity became impossible to ignore.

When the IOC accepted women’s boxing for London — albeit in just three weight classes with 36 total competitors — gyms across the world saw an upsurge in interest from athletes eager for an Olympic opportunity. For the fighters who had kept the faith, the IOC’s decision was validation.

“I wanted to be a part of the Olympics, and I just thought it would never happen,” Cruz said. “It was going to come to the point where I was going to turn pro. Then they made that announcement, and everything just changed.”

Not everybody could wait as long as Cruz. Alyssa DeFazio would have been the second-seeded middleweight in the U.S. trials, but she recently withdrew to prepare for admittance to a police training academy in Arizona.

But for the remaining 24 fighters, the next week is both the culmination of their lifetimes of athletic training and a springboard into the biggest year in their sport’s history.

“I am thrilled that we finally went away from the archaic thinking that a person, because of their gender, can’t do something,” Zanders said. “That’s absurd, in my judgment. It was sad. It was disappointing. It wasn’t right, so to see this is exciting.”

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press


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