LONDON – She is a fighter. See? American boxer Queen Underwood peels off a warm-up jacket and clenches her fists revealing an Olympics tattoo and arms chiseled from the gym.
She is a fighter. Hear? Her hands smack a punching mitt, making a popping sound that rattles like cannon blasts through the sweltering sports center the U.S. is using to train.
"Queen is really aggressive," says her Olympic teammate, Marlen Esparza. "She's the kind of person who can turn a fight around in a second. She just goes and goes and goes."
Standing later on the side of the gym, Underwood's eyes turn dark.
"I know people are going to feel this power when I get in the ring," she says. Her words are cold. She is serious.
The temptation has been to make her something weak. A few months ago, Underwood did an interview with the New York Times in which she revealed her father Azzad sexually abused her for years. She described how Azzad would creep into her room as a child and touch her, often taking her older sister Hazzauna off to another room. Later, she said, Hazzauna would return, weeping.
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It was a powerful story, made more powerful by a small tour of TV interviews the sisters made. And then, a boxing official says, she came to regret all of it, because instead of being a fighter, she became something else. Something weaker.
This is the first Olympics in which women will box, and the fascination with the U.S. team's three members has dwarfed that of the men who remain mostly anonymous here. The Americans already have a model in Esparza, the new face of Cover Girl, who fretted this week about missing a nail appointment. They have a brawler from Flint, Mich., named Claressa Shields who grew up idolizing Laila Ali. After Underwood spoke out, they had a victim as well.
Except the last thing Underwood has ever seemed as an adult is a victim.
"It's not who I am today," she says. "People are trying to make connections that aren't there. I'm strong because of my mindset."
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In a pair of interviews with Yahoo! Sports more than a year ago, Underwood talked about growing up in Seattle's Central District, about how she dreamed of an athletic career. She was a good basketball player and an excellent track athlete. She hoped to have a college scholarship, but, like a lot of talented athletes in the less-affluent areas of Seattle, she fell away, lost in an athletic system that doesn't have many safety nets.
After high school, she ran with what she called "the wrong crowd." Life was confusing. Two things eventually pulled her out. Pipefitting and boxing.
She joined the pipefitters union and served an apprenticeship laying pipes in downtown Seattle buildings. The work, she said, was hard, but the money good. She was the only African American woman in an organization that was largely male and white. She spoke of feeling like an outsider. Later, when providing phone numbers of people to speak to for a possible story about her, she gave that of her boss at the union. She was curious what he would say about her, mainly because she didn't know.
Her other salvation came on a chance stop at a Central District institution: Cappy's Gym. There, the owner Cappy Kotz first watched her from afar to see if she truly wanted to commit herself to fighting before eventually realizing she was indeed serious. For years, Kotz and two female assistants in his gym trained her, watching her develop into America's top female hope by the summer of 2010.
Yes, she had made herself into a fighter, Underwood said at the time. The story she told was one of strength and dedication and willpower. Her work as a pipefitter had allowed her – a girl who came from little – to rent an apartment in a sparkling new high-rise in downtown Seattle. She talked about the looming Olympics and the trips she had already taken around the world as a member of USA Boxing. She was going to be a champion, she said. And she was going to do this because she had made herself with a job and a career and a hope of being a great boxer.
She did not talk about being a victim, even though there seemed to be something troubling her during the two interviews. In 2011, she left Cappy's Gym. In a conversation early that year, Kotz seemed to anticipate this. There were too many signs – the fact she moved to Tacoma an hour away, that she was coming by less and less and that she never appeared for an interview set up at the gym or even called to say she wasn't coming.
Kotz talked a lot about building a team to help propel her to London. He was going to line up a publicist, a videographer and nutritionist, among other things, who would be at her call as the Olympic trials approached. Ultimately, Underwood rejected all of it and began to work with the U.S. coaches in Colorado Springs.
"There are so many things that came up in the last year," she says.
A surprise loss in the AIBA championships in May nearly cost her a spot in the Olympics. Eventually she was picked to come here because she was a five-time U.S. champion and had been ranked in the top five of the world before her defeat.
So, no there are no connections to make between being a victim and an Olympian. Boxing gave her stability and toughness. It wasn't an escape from something awful. On the eve of the Olympics, she talked about the battles she's had with her coaches, saying, "I speak my mind." Her hair had been put into braids earlier in the week by the wife of a high-ranking official from St. Lucia. She said she was ready to fight.
She says she is glad she talked about the abuse because "it's over and done with," but now she must fight the new perception of being a victim. She has sent notice to Olympic officials that she will not talk about the abuse while she is in London. And as she stands there in the gym, clenching her fists, showing muscle and tattoos, the waistband of boxer shorts sticking out from her boxing pants, she looks nothing like a victim.
Rather, she is someone very, very strong.
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