RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. This summer at the Olympic Games in London, women will compete in the boxing ring for the very first time. And next month, some of the top female American boxers will gather in Spokane, Washington to vie for a spot on the U.S. team. WNYC's Marianne McCune spoke with some of the hopefuls are about why they love this traditionally male sport.
MARIANNE MCCUNE, BYLINE: Women who box love it for the same reasons guys do. Boxing requires intense physical and psychological discipline, the ability to overcome fear and anger.
BERTHA ARACIL: I think boxing is therapeutic. It keeps you under control. You know? It controls your body.
MCCUNE: This is Bertha Aracil, 29 years old.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPOON BANGING AGAINST SURFACE)
MCCUNE: She loves to cook.
ARACIL: And I'm an amateur boxer.
MCCUNE: When I met her she was living in a basement apartment in the Bronx with a man and a woman she called her husband...
ARACIL: So strong, poppy.
MCCUNE: ...and her wife.
MCCUNE: They were cooking for a band of nieces, nephews, and sisters - part of a big family of Cuban immigrants.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)
MCCUNE: Aracil is 5 foot 9 with jeans, boots. She says her many tattoos tell the story of who she is. She points to a pit bull and a strawberry.
ARACIL: I love strawberries.
MCCUNE: As a teenager, Aracil was the pit bull. Like a lot of guys who box, she was a street fighter first until she got locked up for five years.
ARACIL: Before I started boxing, I thought you have to be in the ring and be angry to actually win, you know. But you can actually win a fight and don't have, like, nothing malicious in your mind, nothing, you know. You can actually be calm and happy and win. That's what I like about boxing, because I can't believe I can actually fight in the ring and think. When you beat somebody, you're better than them. That's what's satisfying me. I want to be better than you.
MCCUNE: So, any good boxer derives that kind of satisfaction. Here's what's different for a woman: she's taking on a challenge no one expects her to.
GLORIA PEEK: OK, here we go. On the bell.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)
PEEK: I think women are one of the fiercest competitors there are. But they've been taught to suppress a lot of things.
MCCUNE: Coach Gloria Peek is with USA Boxing.
PEEK: It's not ladylike. It's not ladylike to do this, this and that.
(SOUNDBITE OF WOMEN TRAINING)
MCCUNE: Peek is in a California boxing gym, helping train a diverse group of fighters that Bertha Aracil will have to beat in order to make the U.S. Olympic team.
PEEK: Change the speed on her a little bit.
MCCUNE: Peek started boxing in the 1970s, against many odds.
PEEK: My mother dressed me up so pretty in these little dresses and everything like that. And I'd come home with my dress torn, bleeding and all that 'cause I'd been in a fight. My mother's like, Gloria, what were you doing? Fighting. This guy got all in my face, threw a punch. I let him know that I wasn't afraid of him. No, no, it's ladylike to be afraid. Why? Nobody has an intelligent answer.
MCCUNE: Now, she calls boxing the last great domain of men.
PEEK: I think of it as like the gladiators and, you know, the immortals and the gods - that was always men. And now all of a sudden women have stepped into it.
(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON HITTING HEAVY BAG)
MCCUNE: Women like Mikaela Mayer, who's here wailing on a heavy bag. Mayer will compete against Aracil to represent the U.S. at 132 pounds. She's tall, with cover-girl looks, and says she wears heels as often as possible.
MIKAELA MAYER: I like the fact that I'm feminine outside the ring and on the streets and, you know, I may not seem like a boxer but really, you know, I am a boxer and I have that side to me. And I can be a woman and I can be an aggressive athlete.
(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON HITTING SPEED BAG)
MCCUNE: Tiara Brown is on the speed bag - another opponent for Aracil.
TIARA BROWN: I'm a boxer. I want to be treated like the guys are treated, like a boxer. I don't want special treatment because I'm a girl. No.
MCCUNE: On the other hand...
BROWN: For one, I have a big old juicy booty and it's shaped like a cherry. I have abs of steel. And then I have these sexy luscious lips. And I've got these guns on my arms. I'm a boxer, and I'm a girl boxer. (Singing) My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard and, dang right, it's better than yours, dang right...
ARACIL: I love looking at women go in the ring and box. I think that's real sexy.
MCCUNE: We're back in Bertha Aracil's basement bedroom.
ARACIL: To go in the ring and switch up and be strong and can take punches and receiving them, it's showing me my strong side, like, my fearless side. Nothing soft when I'm in the ring. I can be in there and be aggressive and fight, and get out of there and be sweet.
MCCUNE: The three tough and sweet fighters you just met will compete against each other and five other women in the lightweight division for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. For NPR News, I'm Marianne McCune in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON HITTING SPEED BAG)
MARTIN: Our story is part of a series produced with WNYC in New York and the New York Times. Sue Jaye Johnson co-produced the series and her photo essay on the women boxers appears in today's New York Times Magazine. For more, go to NPR.org.