Daily Picture Show

Rings Afire: Charting Women's Olympic Boxing Quests

For the first time since the ancient Greeks adopted the sport more than 2,000 years ago, women will box in the Olympics. In February, 24 Olympic hopefuls will compete for three berths on the U.S. team.

Photographer Sue Jaye Johnson, a boxer herself, has spent the past year photographing these women at home, at the gym, and at qualifying tournaments. Her original idea: Formal portraits of the women just as they stepped out of the ring. But it evolved into something more. We caught up with to her to learn what it was like to work with these women who seem to defy everyone's expectations.

  • Franchon Crews applies her lipstick backstage before her championship fight at the USA National Tournament in Colorado in June 2011. She won. "I'm not doing it for the camera. I got my team, my city, but at the end of the day, it's me in there. It's me."
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    Franchon Crews applies her lipstick backstage before her championship fight at the USA National Tournament in Colorado in June 2011. She won. "I'm not doing it for the camera. I got my team, my city, but at the end of the day, it's me in there. It's me."
    Photos by Sue Jaye Johnson/Sue Jaye Johnson
  • "I'm a very flamboyant person," Franchon says. "I'm the girl with the big personality so when I speak you are going to listen. I hope to use that to change the world and change people's lives."
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    "I'm a very flamboyant person," Franchon says. "I'm the girl with the big personality so when I speak you are going to listen. I hope to use that to change the world and change people's lives."
    Sue Jaye Johnson
  • Franchon was a contestant on American Idol. She swore that if she didn't make history singing, she was going to do it boxing. She is ranked No. 1 in the country. Here, she entertains her teammates at a tournament. "I'm not going to let anybody stop me.  Boxing is part of my life, it's not my life."
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    Franchon was a contestant on American Idol. She swore that if she didn't make history singing, she was going to do it boxing. She is ranked No. 1 in the country. Here, she entertains her teammates at a tournament. "I'm not going to let anybody stop me. Boxing is part of my life, it's not my life."
    Sue Jaye Johnson
  • Franchon, in red, trades punches at the International Duel in Oxnard, Calif., in November 2011. "I'm a champion in life, so that's what gets me through."
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    Franchon, in red, trades punches at the International Duel in Oxnard, Calif., in November 2011. "I'm a champion in life, so that's what gets me through."
    Sue Jaye Johnson
  • Mikaela Mayer is one of eight women competing for the lightweight title. "I like the fact that I'm feminine outside on the streets and I may not seem like a boxer, but really I am a boxer, and I have that side to me. I can be a woman and an aggressive athlete."
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    Mikaela Mayer is one of eight women competing for the lightweight title. "I like the fact that I'm feminine outside on the streets and I may not seem like a boxer, but really I am a boxer, and I have that side to me. I can be a woman and an aggressive athlete."
    Sue Jaye Johnson
  • Mikaela won her final bout at the Golden Gloves National Tournament to secure her place in the Olympic Trials. She says she was a "bad kid" growing up — until she started spending Friday and Saturday nights at the gym.
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    Mikaela won her final bout at the Golden Gloves National Tournament to secure her place in the Olympic Trials. She says she was a "bad kid" growing up — until she started spending Friday and Saturday nights at the gym.
    Sue Jaye Johnson
  • Tiara Brown says guys in the gym get jealous of her body. "I have abs of steel. And then I have these sexy, luscious lips. And then I've got these guns on my arms. I'm a boxer, and I'm a girl boxer."
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    Tiara Brown says guys in the gym get jealous of her body. "I have abs of steel. And then I have these sexy, luscious lips. And then I've got these guns on my arms. I'm a boxer, and I'm a girl boxer."
    Sue Jaye Johnson
  • Tiara weighs in the morning of a fight. Boxers cannot be over the weight limit, or they will be disqualified.
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    Tiara weighs in the morning of a fight. Boxers cannot be over the weight limit, or they will be disqualified.
    Sue Jaye Johnson
  • Tiara at the International Duel in Oxnard last year. "Boxing makes me believe that I can do anything. I feel like boxing is in my blood. When I am not boxing, I feel like a part of me is missing. I am in love with it. I could be married to boxing."
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    Tiara at the International Duel in Oxnard last year. "Boxing makes me believe that I can do anything. I feel like boxing is in my blood. When I am not boxing, I feel like a part of me is missing. I am in love with it. I could be married to boxing."
    Sue Jaye Johnson
  • Bertha Aracil is one of 24 women who will be competing for three spots on the first U.S. Women's Olympic Boxing Team. "Boxing is not a soft sport. I don't believe it's a violent sport, but it's not a soft sport. You gotta have guts to go in the ring and throw a punch and receive one."
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    Bertha Aracil is one of 24 women who will be competing for three spots on the first U.S. Women's Olympic Boxing Team. "Boxing is not a soft sport. I don't believe it's a violent sport, but it's not a soft sport. You gotta have guts to go in the ring and throw a punch and receive one."
    Sue Jaye Johnson
  • Bertha fights N'yteeyah Sherman at the Police Athletic League Tournament in October 2011. "You gotta think before you throw a punch. You can't be angry. When I'm in the ring, I'm thinking all the time, 'How can I beat this person and win?' I'm relaxed and I'm looking for my opponent's mistake. As soon as she makes a mistake, then I'll take advantage and get her."
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    Bertha fights N'yteeyah Sherman at the Police Athletic League Tournament in October 2011. "You gotta think before you throw a punch. You can't be angry. When I'm in the ring, I'm thinking all the time, 'How can I beat this person and win?' I'm relaxed and I'm looking for my opponent's mistake. As soon as she makes a mistake, then I'll take advantage and get her."
    Sue Jaye Johnson
  • Bertha often travels to tournaments with her infant niece and nephew, and tends to them between fights.
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    Bertha often travels to tournaments with her infant niece and nephew, and tends to them between fights.
    Sue Jaye Johnson
  • Bertha loves to cook for her large Cuban family. "Cooking relaxes me, it makes me happy."
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    Bertha loves to cook for her large Cuban family. "Cooking relaxes me, it makes me happy."
    Sue Jaye Johnson
  • Julia Irman won the German National Championship three weeks after giving birth to her son. Here, she poses with a young fan. "In a couple years, I want to have another child. A girl. A boxer like me."
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    Julia Irman won the German National Championship three weeks after giving birth to her son. Here, she poses with a young fan. "In a couple years, I want to have another child. A girl. A boxer like me."
    Sue Jaye Johnson

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What turns a woman into a fighter?

It's just something so deeply, deeply innate. Some of them talk about [how] as a girl, they got in fights — and how determination and drive set them apart from everyone.

To get yourself to a boxing gym really requires an independent mind and someone who is willing to pave their own way.

I've thought a lot about why I have been so drawn to them. They represent a new generation. I look at them as they are — the legacy of the feminist movement in a different way. It's not just their physical strength. It's that they're unapologetic about who they are and what they are doing. And they do it with their own flare and style. And that's what drew me in.

What was your most unusual experience?

It's about to come in the trials. ... It's going to be really hard to watch the trials. It will be an incredible drama to see who will make it. None of them can fathom not making it. They all believe they can make it. It will all be compelling and a culmination of everything.

There were [also] these long weeks of sitting in these high school gymnasiums. I couldn't believe so few people were attending while history was in the making. At times, I was wondering what I was doing there. But at the end of every tournament, I found a gem or an amazing interview or moment.

What drew you into doing this project?

The coach that I had when I started boxing, Vanessa Chakour, was really all about what boxing means in real life. She said everything comes out in the ring. I started wondering what other women were getting out of it. ... I wanted to see these women who I thought transcended fear.

I went to the Golden Gloves Tournament in New York, and then hung out at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn. One boxer led to another.

Fear is not an issue for them. They are a fearless group. The story was about how these women were going to make it to the Olympics, and that they were not only defying convention, but making history doing so.


Learn more on Weekend Edition Sunday, where Marianne McCune reports on what's so great about boxing, according to some of the women in the sport — part of WNYC's series on women boxers.

See more of Sue Jaye Johnson's work on women boxers in The New York Times Magazine.

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