Culture

How One Olympian Made Her Way In A “Guy’s Sport”

Runner Marlen Esparza grew up around brothers and boxing—and eventually took home an Olympic bronze in the sport.

Photo: Charlie Lopez
Photo: Charlie Lopez

Being the first American female boxer to qualify for the Olympics is a mantle Marlen Esparza was proud to wear when she represented the U.S. at the 2012 Olympics. It was the debut of women’s boxing as an Olympic sport and Esparza brought home a bronze medal. However, the 2006-2011 and 2013-2015 USA Boxing National Champion and 2014 World Champion likes to win. In April, she had a rematch with Cancan Ren of China—who took home the silver in 2012—and won.

“It felt like I reclaimed a piece of my soul,” Esparza says of the victory.

We spent a day with Esparza for our July cover shoot—this issue hit newsstands on June 16—in Colorado Springs, Colo., to learn more about what drives her as both a boxer and a runner. (The boxing speedster finished 14th in 1:01:44 at the Nike Toronto 15K on June 14 alongside longtime running idol Joan Benoit Samuelson.)

Women’s Running: How did you get into boxing?

Marlen Esparza: My dad was a huge fan, and we would watch it together on TV. Growing up it was all I knew. Dad took my brothers to the boxing gym, but he wouldn’t take me because I was a girl. My older brother stopped going, so I offered to take my younger brother. I started boxing when I was 11.

WR: What was it like to grow up participating in what is often considered a “guy’s” sport?

ME: There were a couple of other girls who boxed, but at my gym there were no girls. I had to spar guys. It wasn’t cool at the beginning. I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal. I just wanted to work out. I get tunnel vision and was focused on fighting and didn’t realize other girls weren’t doing it too. Even as a kid, I would curl my hair before going to the gym, and my dad would give me a hard time. The first time he came to pick me up, he saw that I was doing mitts and was like, “Wow, you’re boxing for real.”

Then I got to be 14 or 15 and realized most girls were doing other things. From the beginning my coach said he was going to train me like a guy. I didn’t really know what that meant, but it was cool. I had the same trainer right up until London 2012. I was the first girl he ever trained. I had a really good work ethic, which is why he accepted me as a client.

Related: 5 Kettlebell Exercises For Runners

WR: How does your family feel about you boxing now?

ME: My first fight was in Houston, the Houston Regional Golden Gloves Championship, and I won. After that, my dad got on board and said I could fight. Once my dad saw that I was going to give it all I got, he came around to me boxing. Now that my family is on board, it’s easier for me.

WR: What do you do with your bronze medal?

ME: I keep it with me wherever I go. I used to keep it in a safety deposit box. However, it felt safer having it with me, but I don’t often look at it.

WR: Where does running fit into your life?

ME: Running, for the history of boxing, has always been the main cross training. It’s always something I’ve done. Most boxers just run for fitness. I like to run fast and compete. I want to get my [half-marathon] time down to 1:20. I’m a better runner now, because for a long time I just ran without competing. I learned what works for me and how to race.

In high school had to choose between volleyball and cross country because they were the same season. I don’t really like working with teams—especially if we would lose, and I didn’t feel like others tried their hardest. My boxing coach said running would be good for boxing. I ran for school athletics and after school. I like middle distance and half marathons. They work for my body and the training I need to do for boxing. After I’m done with boxing, I’ll try the marathon distance.

Related: 10 Ways Nike’s Training Club Tour Wowed Me

WR: You make a point to always look very put together, and you love to wear make-up. How does that benefit you?

ME: Whenever I work out, I make sure I get dressed up—my clothes are color coordinated, my hair done, and I wear makeup. If I don’t feel good, I’m not going to do good. I have to do that every day. I feel like I’m ready to do something. I wear make up when I fight too. I get ready like I’m going on a date. If I look good, I feel good. And if I feel good, I fight good. The more tired I feel, the more time I invest in getting ready. If I’m really tired, I may spend 45 minutes getting ready for a workout. It really helps me.

WR: How does pre-fight fueling differ from pre-run fueling?

ME: For fight days, I eat something light the day before. Then I’ll eat a heavy breakfast the day of and let it settle out. Before a race or big run, I’ll carb up the day before for fuel, but not right before bed because then I don’t sleep well. In the morning, I’ll eat something light.

WR: What do you think about when you run?

ME: When I run, I usually think about my problems. It’s the biggest way to decompress for me. Some runs aren’t for my body or as part of my training. They are to clear my head. The angrier I am, the faster I run! When I fight, I try to focus on my opponent as an opponent—not a person. It’s not personal. I seem them as an obstacle.

WR: What do you like to do when you aren’t training?

ME: For fun, I do stuff like this [photo shoot], I guess. I’m big on maintenance, like nails and hair. That takes a lot of my down time. I read a lot. (Ed note: She’s currently reading Born to Run by Chris McDougall). I’m also taking classes because I know there is life after boxing.

WR: What do think you will do after you finishing your fighting career?

ME: I always see being involved in boxing, and want to focus on the empowerment of women through sport.

WR: You’re petite yet formidable, girly yet a fighter. How did you become so confident and sure of yourself?

ME: I’m really confident. I have a strong presence when I speak or need something done. My mom didn’t teach me that. My dad didn’t teach me that. It comes from knowing who I am and what I want. You have to be real and honest with yourself about your capabilities. As you reach different benchmarks and standards, you see how much you are growing. I’m not trying to be perfect, but I am trying to be my version of perfect. It’s about making goals in life and sport. As you meet your goals, you grow and your confidence grows.