At the close of her Olympic semifinal bout against Ren Cancan of China, boxer Marlen Esparza thought her efforts would either take her to a tiebreak or the finals.
Going into the Olympics, Esparza, a 22-year-old flyweight, said she was ready to give up competitive boxing when she came home. When her losing score was announced and she had to settle for the bronze, it revitalized her drive to continue boxing for the gold. There is no bronze-medal match in Olympic boxing, and both fighters who lose their semifinal matches take bronze medals. But Esparza did not want to give up the fight.
“I’m thinking, and I’m thinking, and I was like ‘So what’s going to make me happy?’ I got to go back. I’ve got to get a gold medal,” she told a room of 150 students and faculty Wednesday.
The audience packed Sterling Memorial Library’s International Room on Wednesday to hear Esparza speak as a kickoff for Yale’s Latino Heritage Month. During the hour-long discussion, moderated by La Casa Cultural Director and Assistant Dean of Yale College Rosalinda Garcia, Esparza discussed her difficulties joining a sport dominated by men, her Olympic experience and her drive to take the Gold next time.
Garcia said she hoped Esparza’s determination could set an example for Latino students at Yale.
“I want for our students to be inspired by other Latinos,” Garcia said. “There’s so much in the media right now about Latinos, and I think we’re so often portrayed as a problem … and I want to highlight the Latinos that have really worked hard and accomplished a lot.”
Esparza grew up around boxing. Her family watched the sport at home, and her father originally encouraged her three brothers to fight. In order to convince her father to let her box as well, Esparza said she agreed to take her youngest brother to the gym if she could take lessons of her own. She began at age 11.
But convincing her father was not her last battle before she entered the ring. It took two months before she could persuade her preferred trainer to work with her, and she continued to face discrimination in the gym, she added.
“I get to the gym, and it’s nothing but guys,” Esparza said. “I had to take a lot from a lot of [them]. I’m Hispanic … I got a lot of like, ‘Why are, why are you even here? You’re just going to get pregnant.’ ”
She emphasized that the hurdles she faced only motivated her to work harder and to stick with what she loved. She initially wore drab clothing to prove her presence in the gym was to box.
But when Esparza established herself in the sport, she found she began to earn respect from her male counterparts, she added.
“Once I started reaching the point where I would win … I started beating up guys in sparring,” she said. “Everyone started coming around a little bit, and then I could be myself.”
With her success, she began to change the assumptions surrounding female boxers. While people used to dislike the idea of women being feminine and boxing, Esparza said, they now love it.
Esparza threw herself into training. Working out six days a week, she perfected her technique, went on runs and performed strength training. For years, she prepared for Olympic competition. But despite her intense training, Esparza said she did not fully realize how far she had come until a pivotal moment at the 2012 Games.
“It didn’t hit me [that I was at the Olympics] until I was walking to the ring. Which is the wrong time for it to hit you,” Esparza said, drawing laughter.
Eliciting further laughter, Esparza described working out in the Olympic Village one day with her trainer when a crowd began to gather around her. Growing nervous as the group grew larger, she continued to train, but finally she looked up from her training to see members of the United States’ men’s basketball team watching her.
“Oh, they’re not watching me,” she said. “They’re watching like Lebron watch me.”
The weeks after the games represented her first break from training in twelve years. During this time, she has thrown herself into a clothing line, an apparel line, a cosmetics line, a book and even a boxing Barbie. She has also signed with United Talent Agency, which floated the possibility of her commentating on HBO and ESPN.
After the discussion ended, students posed with Esparza and the bronze medal as the Olympian signed autographs for the crowd.
“I thought she was really genuine,” Javier Cienfuegos ’15 said.
La Casa co-sponsored the event with the Athletics Department and the Intercultural Affairs council.