Whether she's serving up plate-sized pancakes at a Fells Point restaurant or pummeling the speed bag in an oven-hot North Avenue gym, Gina D'Andrea operates at an intensity summed up by the tattoo inside her lower lip: "Hustler."
At an even 5 feet and 110 pounds, she says that when some people look at her, all they see is "a nose and a pair of sneakers." But D'Andrea has big dreams.
Pancakes pay the bills, but boxing feeds her soul.
This week, D'Andrea will step into a ring in Hollywood, Fla., to face another amateur boxer, and if she's good enough, another one after that. Not quite two years after she first laced up a pair of gloves, D'Andrea could be the 2008 Women's National Golden Gloves champion in the flyweight division.
Her coach, Marvin McDowell, a member of Maryland's Boxing Hall of Fame, likes her chances.
"I see a national champion, if she does her best and listens to me," says McDowell, owner of Umar Boxing Program. "The skills are in there. She's got the package. All she has to do is open the package and give the gifts out."
In March, D'Andrea made the semifinals of USA Boxing's Future Stars championships, which attracted 11 current or former amateur national champions.
Born in Annapolis 24 years ago, D'Andrea led the life of a military brat. South Korea, Seattle, Germany and El Paso, Texas, were home at one time or another. Lots of things changed, but one remained constant. The family watched boxing on television.
"I've always liked boxing, always," she says.
She finished school, attended hairdressing academy and settled in the Washington area. Working out in a local gym, she met boxers and joined them on their daily runs.
While watching a fight that featured cruiserweight Darnell "Ding-A-Ling Man" Wilson from Takoma Park, she thought to herself: " 'They get paid for this?' It seemed better than getting a real job."
If only. In those first bouts, D'Andrea took her lumps.
"In the beginning, being aggressive is part of everyone's game," she says. "That only works for so long. I had a couple of fights and I won them, but not with a lot of skill."
She moved to Baltimore, took a job at the Blue Moon Cafe and learned when it comes to boxing, "Umar's the word on the street."
McDowell, 48, runs a barbershop at Mondawmin Mall but returns to the neighborhood where he grew up to run Umar, his North Avenue gym.
"This ain't Bally's," he says of the second-floor, walk-up gym filled with battered equipment and lively music from a boom box. "This is where men and women are made."
As part of his nonprofit operation, the two-time state welterweight champion and seven-time South Atlantic Boxing Association champion began a program called "No Hooks Before Books" that teaches kids boxing, but only if they take tutoring and homework sessions. In 2002, two of his boxers won national Silver Glove championships.
When D'Andrea met McDowell, he saw "someone who really wanted to learn the sport. I like people who are serious, because I'm serious about the sport."
The coach got her in the best shape of her life, each day a regimen of running, jumping rope and four rounds each of bag work, shadow boxing and sparring. He made her spar with men bigger and more experienced.
"Some kids have more talent in their spit than I have in my two arms and they just disappear," she says. "It's not that I'm a natural talent in anything. I'm just really good at work."
And sometimes that has meant taking bouts against less-than-stellar competition. "You just get in there with anything with a pulse," she says. "You put to the test what you know."
Women's boxing is moving away from the spectacle that allowed disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding to get in the ring. But progress is slow. Promoters need attractions like Laila Ali, daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
So each day after a full shift at the restaurant, D'Andrea switches to her gym clothes. After stretching and wrapping her hands in protective cloth, she hops up on a wooden platform to draw a bead on the speed bag.
With a few practiced snaps of her gloved hands, the leather bag whips violently back and forth, the rhythmic sound rising above the din. Then it's into the ring, where McDowell waits with sparring gloves ready.
He calls out punches and combinations and picks them off as D'Andrea lets fly, the sound of her gloves smacking his with the authority of a 90-mph fastball.
"Ah, ah. ah, ah, ah," she puffs with each combination.
After four rounds, both are breathing heavily, sweat running in little streams down their faces and necks.
With her short reach, D'Andrea must work her way inside.
"That's the object of it. Hit and don't get hit," she says. "If you think you're going to catch one but you can get inside and inflict some damage, you do it."
Her record is 12-4. Turning pro is a dream.
"I've put a lot of work in this, so I want to do this right," she says, catching her breath. "It's not my time yet. But it will be."
See a video of Gina D'Andrea at baltimoresun.com/outdoors