Esparza was the first U.S. woman to qualify for the very first women’s Olympic boxing team, and at the 2012 Olympic games, she won a bronze medal.
But Esparza has always been a trailblazer. She grew up in Houston as part of a supportive but strict family, and she had to fight just to be allowed to try boxing when she was 11 years old. Now she is a groundbreaking boxer and an inspirational public speaker.
She also doesn’t pull punches. When things are hard, she says they’re hard—and she admits that there are times she feels like losing hope. That makes her message even more inspirational. You can trust that she’s telling you what’s really possible.
I had the chance to speak to Esparza about her upcoming talk on embracing inner strength for the We Are Girls Conference and about her love of the fight.
What are you going to cover in your talk on embracing your inner strength?
They really wanted me to focus ongoing for the gold in 2016 and being Latina, because they’re trying to focus on the Latina community a little bit this time around. I’m going to talk about my culture and the impact it made and also about going for the gold and how hard it’s going to be.
What impact did your culture have on your becoming a boxer?
Latinos in general (and maybe Mexicans especially) pay a lot of attention to boxing and soccer. Boxing was one of the main things that my dad loved. Julio César Chávez was dominating when I was a kid, and we were all watching so much boxing. If he hadn’t been winning and my dad hadn’t already been into boxing, then I don’t think I would have ever embraced the sport or been open to it or saw it the way I saw it.
But also, I come from a traditional Mexican family. My dad believed boxing was only a men’s sport, and I had to fight with him and with other people just to try it. My coach didn’t want me at first; he says he kept trying to get rid of me but I wouldn’t go away.
I felt like I was always on the bottom of the heap. Being a woman, I felt like I always had to fight just to do what I wanted.
So my culture helped me, and at times it went against me. In the long run it has all made me a better and stronger person.
What made you brave enough to keep boxing even when your family was against it and your coach and other boxers didn’t respect your right to be there at first?
I started boxing when I was 11, but I grew up on it. I was watching boxing at the same time I was still young enough to watch Barney. I saw boxing as a thing that people did, not just men. I was also really intrigued by it partly because it was something my dad was into—I loved him, so I wanted to love boxing, too. I didn’t see it as a male sport.
And that’s how I thought about boxing before anybody told me that they thought it was just for men. So when my dad finally let me train, I didn’t care what anybody said, because I was in. I had convinced myself that I knew what boxing was about. I didn’t actually know, but I thought I did. I didn’t care what anybody said. I thought they were ridiculous for telling me I couldn’t do it.
Also, if you tell someone they can’t have Skittles, when they finally get them, they’re going to eat those Skittles. They don’t care if they’re going to get yelled [at], they will eat them. So when I was finally allowed to train, I could not care less what anybody was saying.
I went with my heart without even knowing it. I was naïve then, but it worked out. So now when I think about my future, everything that goes with living, I try to make everything black and white again and go with what I feel. My heart’s never led me the wrong way. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but the only mistakes I’ve made are when I really didn’t listen to myself.
In the 2012 Olympics, the U.S. women’s boxing team took home a gold and bronze. The men took home a bronze. How did you feel about the U.S. women’s showing in those games?
I was proud of us. I’m proud of all the women. We did so well, and so did the other countries. Even though we’re fighting against each other, we’re all still fighting for the same idea.
We all performed extremely well. There was a lot of pressure—99 percent of us had never been on that type of stage before, with such a big audience. We were all very respectful, even when we felt like the decisions should have gone our way.
The U.S. did extremely well. I don’t think they expected two medals. I was hoping that they’d add more weight classes this next time, since we did so well, but for the next Olympics they [will] still just have three weight classes.
In the same Olympic games, U.S. women took gold and bronze in judo and the men got no medals. U.S women also medaled in wrestling and taekwondo. Do you think that women are being taken more seriously in combat sports now?
I think that we’re accepted more. Now we’re at least allowed to try it. Before, people thought it was ridiculous.
But I also feel like it’s like a rerun of when women started working instead of being housewives. Now it’s totally acceptable to apply for a job and compete, but are you ever treated exactly like the men? Women still don’t make as much money for the same work.
So I also feel that in boxing we’re still treated unfairly as far as the work we put in. We don’t [get] paid as much as the men. If I was a male and I went pro, I would have over six figures as a signing bonus. But because I’m a female, I’d be lucky to get $20,000.
It’s going to take time. It’s going to take effort from everybody. We have to be smart, keep our game strong, and try to get people to want to watch us more and watch all women’s sports.
How do you feel being a leader in women’s boxing—and in combat sports for women in general?
I’m a very honest person. I don’t make all my answers like rainbows and gummi bears and unicorns.
The truth is, it’s not that great all the time. I started it for me. And I love it. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. I feel like this is what I was born to do—I deeply, genuinely feel that. But it’s stressful, I’m in a different situation than a lot of people have been. I get respect, but for every one who respects me, I get three who don’t. I get a lot of negative feedback from people. I have to deal with this whirlwind of emotions on a regular basis and then still win.
It gets hard, but there are those moments that make it a clean slate. In boxing, you train sometimes four times a day, and sometimes you can’t eat because you have to make weight . . . you’re exhausted. Before you fight you’re a nervous wreck, you’ve worked so hard and it seems so overwhelming.
And then you fight, and you win. For those two seconds they raise your hand, and you feel bliss. Then you start over, and you remember that bliss and you remember why you did everything you did.
That’s also why all the things that I do outside of boxing are worth it. I get stressed out because I have so much to do, but I have those few seconds where something happens, and I’m like, “Wow, this is why I’m doing this.”
One time I was stressed out because I had a lot to do and places to be, and I had to work out, and I was over weight for the upcoming bout. I was crowning a king and queen at a high school, and I was just thinking about getting through that event so I could get back to my own work.
The girl wanted to meet me. I shook her hand on the field and said hi, and she was crying. I’ve seen people get nervous or tear up, but she cried like somebody just passed away. I was trying to calm her down, and the more I talked the more she cried, and she was like “I love you so much.”
That’s when I thought, that is why I have so much pressure. But it’s also why the pressure is okay.
If you can affect somebody like that in such a good way, if someone can be that touched by someone that they don’t know because they feel inspired, that means that they probably don’t have a lot of people around them to look up to. If I can be that person, that’s what’s worth it. What’s the point of all this otherwise?
If I can affect somebody that way, that means I’m doing something right. Then, man, I feel like I’m doing something good. That’s something you can’t buy. That can fulfill my soul.
Is there anyone you look up to like that? That would cause you to cry like that girl?
The best fighter I’ve ever wanted to meet is Salvadore Sánchez, but he passed away a long time ago. And Julio César Chávez—he signed gloves for me and sent them to me before the Olympics.
It would definitely be a boxer, if it would be anybody. I don’t know if I’d cry, though.
What’s next for you? Rio in 2016?
Yep. That’s the goal. I’m thinking about it every second. I won my nationals for this year; I won continentals. My world rankings moved up. We have a tournament in December against other countries. That’s not going to affect whether I go to the games. I have my nationals in January, which I have to win. I have my world tournament in the middle of next year, which I have to win to keep my rankings up. In 2015, that’s when my qualifications start, and I can’t lose one fight. And there will be lots of them.
Editor’s note: GENaustin’s We Are Girls conference is a statewide annual event that addresses the topics of body image, bullying, and girl empowerment. The conference is geared toward girls in grades 5-12 and their parents. Registration is still open.