Houston native Marlen Esparza isn't just breaking the glass ceiling—she's shattering it. Already a decorated boxer, Esparza became the first American woman to qualify for the Olympics in boxing in 2012, the first year women’s boxing was an Olympic event. She went on to win the bronze in the women’s flyweight division that year in London.
Esparza, a Nike athlete, is also the first woman signed to Golden Boy, Oscar De La Hoya's boxing promotions company. Her most recent feat, though, was having her son, Saint. After he was born, Esparza decided to get back in the ring; she's currently 7-0 and will fight Seniesa Estrada for the flyweight title in Las Vegas on November 2. We sat down with Esparza to discuss her historic journey.
What lessons have you learned from boxing that you can apply to motherhood?
It’s taught me a lot of patience. Through boxing, I understand now that not everything is a competition. When I first had Saint, or even when I was pregnant, I felt like I was trying to compete with other women, like "how they were as moms?" or "what are they doing? Was their pregnancy easy? Did they use medicine?" So it was a huge comparison. And then I started to realize, that’s boxing. That’s what I do for a living, and that’s usually how I operate, but when it comes to being a mom, you can’t do that. It’s not a healthy way to raise a kid, and that’s what I think it taught me the most.
How have you struck that work-life balance?
Sometimes I feel like I’m two people. As an athlete, you’re kind of consumed with that idea that you can’t break away for a moment because it will hurt your performance. So I learned the art of being two people. I am a mom, I am nurturing and I’m trying to raise a human being, but at the same time I have to have my game-face on and be really serious because of boxing. Once I kind of figured out how to separate the two, and it’s not weird—you are two people, and it’s okay. It became a lot easier for me. I like who I am when I’m not in the ring, and I never had that person before.
What does it mean to you as a Latina woman to have accomplished so much in such a male-dominated sport?
I try not to think about it too much, but I do try to remember that there are little girls watching me. When I was younger I didn't have the privilege of someone doing it before me, so I didn't have anyone to ask, "how do I do this?" or "what's the next move?" There was nobody guiding me; I had nothing to look at to try to figure out if I was in the right place. Because I can do that for younger girls, I try to make sure to keep that in mind so the girls watching me can have an example to follow.
You've knocked down quite a few doors in your career. What has that journey been like?
It's been crazy. The last few years of my career have been crazy, and there have been a lot of obstacles—more than I think anybody would want to be faced with—because of the sport and my situation, my ethnicity. All of that was really lined up against me. It was hard, but it was all really worth it. I feel like regardless of anything I do after, I'll have a big part of my life that I can say that I'm proud of.
What's been the most memorable moment in your career thus far?
My first fight, because it was just a big shock. I'm not an easily excitable person—it's hard to get me shook. But because of the game, it hit me so hard, and I was shook. I will remember that for the rest of my life.
What was it like for you to sign to Golden Boy?
I was really excited about that one, because it was something that I wasn’t sure that I could pull off. Getting a promotional company to like you and sign you and invest in you, and you’re a female—it’s a whole different animal. You’re talking about money, people’s point of view, people’s beliefs towards the sport, and I didn’t know that that was something I could pull off. So when I did do it and I finally got the contract, being the first female, I was just really proud of myself.
What's your mentality going into this Nov. 2 fight?
I’m really trying to not let everything get a hold of me. When you go into a boxing match, even if there’s isn’t a lot going on, it’s really easy to get distracted, and you kind of lose focus of what's happening in there. This fight is going to be super crazy, a lot of lights, a lot of heat, a lot of noise, and I’m just really trying to make sure that when I go in there, I only focus on her and what’s going on.
How do you decompress?
I try to meditate a lot; I try to visualize a lot. It's easier when you don't have a baby, but two to three times a week I try to take 20-minute baths with a lot of visualization and kind of rehearsing everything. It calms me down because I feel like I have been in the situation before.
What do you hope to show the world by getting back into the ring after having a child?
I want to show people that having a baby doesn't end your career. If anything, I'm just as good—if not better.