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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are counting down to the Summer Olympics, which will be held this year in London. And today we'll hear about the first ever U.S. Olympic Trials in Women's Boxing. It was only in 2009 that the International Olympic Committee approved that sport. Now, 24 of this country's best female boxers have come to Washington State with Olympic dreams and a chance to bring their sport out of the shadows.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Actually, women boxed at the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis. It was called a display event and wasn't one of the counting, medal sports. One hundred and eight years later, it counts.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: They have punched their way to the Northern Quest Resort and Casino outside of Spokane. Despite its middle-of-nowhere feel, this is most definitely somewhere to the 24 boxers who qualified for the trials. All had the same goal; many followed different paths. There's pint-sized Alex Love. She's 5'1", fights in the 112-pound flyweight division, and would probably like to get me in the ring and have me call her pint-sized again. Love grew up on a farm in Washington State and took up boxing three years ago to cross-train for basketball.

ALEX LOVE: I've never been in a fight outside the ring. I just never have. After I got asked that question, I was, like, man, I need to get in one or something, you know?

GOLDMAN: Claressa Shields might oblige. The 16-year-old, 165-pound middleweight grew up brawling in Flint, Michigan.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I think fifth grade I had fought a boy and I slammed him and beat him up real bad.

GOLDMAN: Shields started boxing at 11 for her dad, who spent time in prison. She wanted to make him happy, let him live his boxing past through her. So far, she's the talk of the trials – a teenager who wears socks in the ring with pictures of Betty Boop on them, and who staggers opponents with her fearsome punching.

SHIELDS: OK, yeah. I can say that we - that I'm out there fighting for blood. Yeah, but it's not literally blood. I mean, I'm not thinking kill.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JASON CRUTCHFIELD: Are you? I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: That's your job.

CRUTCHFIELD: Yeah, that's my job.

GOLDMAN: That's Shields' coach, Jason Crutchfield. He's one of the men here who've embraced women's boxing. Although not all were gung-ho from the start.

BASHEER ABDULLAH: I didn't want to see women in this sport.

GOLDMAN: Forty-nine-year-old coach Basheer Abdullah, who practices Islam, says his opposition was for religious reasons. But he also wanted to keep his job as a boxing coach with the U.S. Army. So he adapted when the world class athlete program took on women. He's glad he did.

ABDULLAH: Oh, it was amazing, you know. And I was, like, wow, they're great athletes in this sport. They're more focused. They're coachable. They're more determined. They're more disciplined.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Round one.

GOLDMAN: In a way, these trials represent a first round, a significant first round in the fight for women's boxing. There's still a ways to go. Christy Halbert is a long-time coach and advocate for her sport. She lobbied long and hard for getting it into the Olympics.

CHRISTY HALBERT: When we got, the vote came back in August of 2009, it was a cause for celebration that we got in. But it was hard for some of us to celebrate knowing all of the boxers that would be left out.

GOLDMAN: The International Olympic Committee OKed women's boxing in three weight classifications: 112 pounds, 132 and 165. Halbert says in this country alone, about 3,000 women are registered as amateur boxers in 10 weight classes. Boxing's international governing body is lobbying the IOC to get more women into the 2016 games.

For the lucky boxers here with 2012 in their crosshairs, the weeding out process doesn't end this week. The winners in the three weight divisions then have to finish in the top eight at the world championships in China before the dream of London becomes reality.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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