They're fighting for one spot

Model, Mohawk could meet with Olympic berth on the line

July 28, 2011|By Kevin Baxter, Tribune Newspapers

One has 10 tattoos, a Mohawk haircut and so much ethnic diversity in her background she calls herself "a little bit of everything."

The other is a fair-haired, fair-skinned Valley girl who put aside a modeling career to fight.

Yet for all their differences, Patricia Manuel, the Mohawk, and Mikaela Mayer, the model, share the same dream: a spot on the first U.S. Olympic boxing team for women.

"There's no higher sports achievement than the Olympics," says Manuel, a former national champion. "And it means a lot to me."

"It comes down to one day," Mayer adds. "You lose, you're out."

And because both fight at 132 pounds, it's a goal only one can realize.

"I think about it all the time," Mayer says. "It would be amazing. Especially coming from where I came from."

That's another thing they share: Each took long, unusual — and in the case of Manuel — painful paths toward a goal that seems to grow more elusive the closer they get.

Manuel, who lives in Long Beach, Calif., discovered boxing in high school, when her grandmother gave her a Christmas-present membership in the L.A. Boxing Club to help her lose weight.

"Now I'm down to 130 pounds," she says. "So the diet worked."

Grandma's plan never called for Manuel to throw a punch in anger. But a few months later the teenager climbed into the ring with a 32-year-old veteran of 26 fights.

"It was obviously a mismatch. It was embarrassing," she says. "I fell in love with it immediately."

Soon Manuel, whose background is primarily Irish, Mexican and black, had talked her way into trainer Roberto Luna's stable at the Commerce Boxing Club. By the end of 2008, Manuel was ready to leave the amateur ranks.

But her pro debut was postponed repeatedly, first by a split lip, then when multiple opponents pulled out days before scheduled fights. So she wound up entering, and winning, the 2009 amateur national championships.

Two months later women's boxing was added to the London Games, and Manuel delayed her pro debut indefinitely.

That's when the real problems began. Because of a compressed joint in her right shoulder, Manuel hasn't fought since losing in the semifinals of the Pan Am box-off last March, and she won't get into the ring again until October's national PAL championships. There she'll have to finish either first or second to qualify for next year's U.S. Olympic trials.

"I know I've had setbacks. But in my heart of hearts, I know if I'm 100 percent no one's going to beat me," Manuel, 25, says. "I look at it this way: Certain people have certain mediums to get to where they need to hoist themselves.

"And to me boxing is that medium. That's my vehicle to greatness."

Mayer was also 17 when she first found herself in a gym looking for something other than a spot on the Olympic team.

A party girl who was kicked out of one high school for fighting and was about to flunk out of another, Mayer said she had "an epiphany" after stumbling into a Muay Thai club in the San Fernando Valley.

"I always had a feeling that I was meant to do something great. And I wasn't living up to my potential," she says. "So I cut off a lot of friends. I stopped partying and all I wanted to do was train every day. I became addicted to it."

Good at it too. After winning her first 10 bouts in Muay Thai — a combat sport that features stand-up striking, kicking and clinching — Mayer switched to boxing and in less than a year she had won the national Golden Gloves and PAL tournaments.

"I was thinking, 'I want to get good enough to go pro,'" Mayer says. "When the Olympics came around I actually thought, 'Should I wait?'

"And then I was like, 'Of course! Duh?' Why would you not wait?"

Mayer, 21, is a tall, thin blonde with hazel eyes and an infectious smile, all traits that helped her fill a modeling portfolio. In the ring, she relies on other talents.

"She has an unusual gift," says her coach, Ric O'Kane, the man Mayer credits with turning her life around. "She has an unusual reach. She knows how to use her jab. That was the first thing I showed her. And that's one of her main weapons."

As Mayer began to climb in the national rankings she became eligible to join the U.S. Olympic Education Center attached to Northern Michigan University. So, three years after nearly flunking out of a continuation school, she's a college freshman with a 3.3 GPA.

"It literally got me a college education," she says of boxing.

And she has to win only one tournament to make it to London after winning the national Golden Gloves tournament earlier this month, earning an automatic berth in February's Olympic trials.

"I'm so excited," Mayer said. "Especially that I did it this summer. It's a big relief. Now I can concentrate on getting to the trials in the best shape I can be in."

Her coach has no doubt how this is going to turn out.

"She's going to make it," promises O'Kane, who says Mayer's story is too perfect to end short of the medal podium.

"She is in such a key position. For a girl with her looks; she's the all-American girl, She was born on the Fourth of July. I call her Yankee Doodle Dandy."

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