FOX Sports Exclusive
Getting here really was winning
Queen Underwood halfheartedly hugged her opponent, then stepped between the ropes, walked away from the boxing ring and headed under the packed stands.
The five-time U.S. national champion had slugged it out for four rounds with the hometown favorite, Natasha Jonas of Great Britain, during the first day of women’s boxing in Olympic history. She’d ducked and dodged, landed jabs and hooks, but the Brit landed more, beating Underwood 21-13 and ending the American’s Olympic dream in her first bout.
Now Underwood was standing in the back of the arena, her voice choked and her eyes ringed with tears. Reporters crowded around her and asked sympathetic questions. Aren’t you proud just to be here, they asked, proud to be part of Olympic history?
“No. I don’t think that’s enough,” the 28-year-old said. “I gave away half of my life for this. It just doesn’t feel like the reward of being here is enough. I just wish and hope that, as far as the fans, the people who’ve been there for me, and my family, can look at my journey as a champion versus the outcome of the win or loss or the decision I got. Because that’s where it ends for me, being a champion and pushing for it outside the ring, since I didn’t get the gold medal here.”
Athletes do not train for four years to have their Olympics end in a half hour. They come here to make tangible history in the shape of an Olympic medal. They train to become Michael Phelps, or Jessica Ennis, or Usain Bolt, to return home with a gold medal – or a bunch of gold medals – around their neck.
But there’s something different about these Olympics.
People are winning by showing up.
South African double-amputee Oscar Pistorius won the moment he stepped into the Olympic Stadium to run the 400-meter dash. Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, the first female athlete from Saudi Arabia to compete in an Olympics, won the moment she stepped on the judo mat. Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi, the Malaysian shooter who is eight months pregnant, won the moment she fired her first Olympic shot out of her air rifle. The 24 women who were the first female boxers in Olympic history won the moment each of them stepped into the ring Sunday.
And this is more true for Queen Underwood than any of the others.
Her story has been a well-documented one. Her father went to prison for molesting her when she was younger. She dabbled with drugs, fought off depression and thoughts of suicide, and then at age 19 stumbled upon Cappy’s Boxing Gym in a rough Seattle neighborhood. The cliche, in this case, is true: The sport literally saved her life.
She worked manual labor jobs – in construction, as a sprinkler installer – as she trained and trained, winning the U.S. title five years in a row but always aiming for these Olympics.
On Sunday, her dreams were crushed. The crowd was boisterously behind the Brit, and Underwood knew she needed to be aggressive throughout the fight to sway the judges. She simply got out-boxed.
Being at the Olympics “is an accomplishment, a great accomplishment, but we don’t come here to be good,” said Charles Leverette, an assistant coach for USA Boxing. “We come here to become great. We just came up on the short end of the stick.”
Underwood was distraught: “If I could curse, I’d say the S-word,” she said. She is not planning to fight in Rio in 2016, so this was her last and only Olympics.
She described it as the end of a journey, and a time to open up a new chapter in life. It was incredibly sad, to have such an inspiring up-from-the-bottom story end in defeat. You wanted to give her a big hug. A few reporters did.
“History doesn’t mean anything to me,” she said. “The gold medal meant more. A lot of people could say this is history. It’s a big moment for the up-and-coming boxers. But for me to set high goals for myself, I don’t think just getting here was enough for me. I don’t think just being part of history was enough for me. I don’t look at this journey and look at being an Olympian as great. Bringing back home a medal would have been great.”
It’s true: For Queen Underwood, someone who has been through hell and come through to the other side, winning gold would have been great, one of the most inspiring moments in these Games. On Sunday, that did not happen.
But know this, too: On Sunday, Queen Underwood showed up. She made history as the first American female boxer to compete in an Olympics. She made it from the bottom of life to the height of her sport. She is not an Olympic gold medalist, but she will forever be an Olympian — which, given the awful circumstances of her youth, is a damn impressive feat in and of itself.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.