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.
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.