Inside a sprawling gym tucked into the corner of a sprawling strip mall between a Goodwill and a discount shoe store in east Fresno, Sandra Tovar straps on a pair of hot pink hand wraps. Then she climbs through the ropes into the elevated ring and begins throwing punches at an imaginary opponent, her long braid bouncing against her back. With each thrust, she grimaces slightly and pushes air through her teeth. “Ch, ch, ch-ch-ch.” Jab, cross, jab-jab-cross. As she warms up, three tiny giggling girls in workout gear skip past to a beginners’ class on the other side of the room.
A high school sophomore, Sandra is the country’s top-ranked boxer in the junior girls’ 110-pound weight class. She is also the reigning national champion and is preparing to defend her crown in Salt Lake City in early December. The long-term goal, though, is Tokyo 2020, just the third Olympics to include women’s boxing. To qualify, boxers must turn 19 at any point that year. Sandra, born on New Year’s Eve 2001, makes the cutoff by a day.
Even by the standards of elite athletes, Sandra is unusually driven. “All she does is sports, homework, sports, homework,” says her father, Jeff Tovar. “She doesn’t ever ask to go out or anything.” A typical day involves seven hours of school, where she takes mostly honors classes, followed by two hours of varsity cross-country or track practice and then a couple of hours of boxing.
Until recently, Sandra was coached exclusively by her father near their home in Turlock, a Central Valley town of 70,000 between Modesto and Merced, but as her national competition schedule has intensified, she has begun commuting to Fresno twice a week. Although Jeff remains her primary coach, six months ago she signed up with Marcos Padilla, who has trained numerous junior national champions.
That means an additional three hours spent on Highway 99 between the two cities, which is often when her homework gets done. “I look at nationals as a step closer to getting to the Olympics,” Sandra says. “There’s only, like, two or three years left. So I feel like it’s probably going to end up going fast, faster than we think.”
At 5-foot-6, Sandra is one of the tallest competitors in her weight class. In a pair of black leggings and a slim-fit USA Boxing T-shirt, she looks gangly for a champion boxer. When she begins to spar against a boy in her same weight class, she towers over him, quickly pushing him against the ropes and reaching her long arms to land repeated blows on his padded headgear. Coach Padilla shouts, “Numbers, Sandra, numbers!” reminding her to throw more punches to sell the judges on her dominance in a real match. Her father focuses on encouragement: “Come on, mija!”
Sandra is part of a Central Valley boxing tradition that stretches back before California was a state. The valley’s first great champion was Italian American, but in recent decades, most of its great boxers have been Latino. Until a few years ago, women and girls were barred — sometimes by law, sometimes by custom — from formal competition. Jeff Tovar says he doesn’t remember any girls showing up at boxing gyms before 2008 or so.
These days, though, many of the best boxers coming out of the Central Valley are teenage girls. Five girls from the area, all Latina, are among the top eight in their weight classes in the national junior or youth rankings. Another four, all between 9 and 16, finished first or second in the Junior Olympics earlier this year.
When asked why the girls are now excelling, Frank Aleman, the president of the Central California Amateur Boxing Association and the owner of a gym in Fresno, says success begets success: “We have good fighters, in general, and maybe just because we’re good right now, the girls are good, too.” Jeff Tovar says that every young female boxer he’s ever met, including his daughter, got into the sport because one or more of her male relatives were already involved.
When Sandra was 8, she told her dad she was bored in her after-school program and wanted to quit. He offered only one alternative: Come train at the boxing gym. Her mother worked all day as a Head Start teacher, and Jeff trained boxers after his shift as a maintenance worker for the school district. So Sandra agreed to go to the gym, with one condition. “I told him, ‘I am not going to fight,’ ” she says, grinning. “I didn’t want to spar or anything. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to get hit.” Jeff says she cried the first time she took a punch, but he pushed her to keep going because he could tell she had a knack for learning combinations as well as “a beautiful straight hard jab.”
“My dad’s whole side of the family, they all box,” Sandra says, “and we have a gym in our backyard, too, so my dad trained some of his fighters from back in the day, and then they’d watch boxing at the house, too. It was just always part of my life, even before I even wanted to do it, as long as I can remember.”
America Berber had been surrounded by boxing for most of her life, too, when she took up the sport at 9. “I saw my cousin compete, and I wanted to compete to win trophies like him,” she says on a rare day off from training at Aleman’s gym in east Fresno. She started taking lessons with Aleman, who immediately spotted her potential. Although America lost her first fight, she then reeled off five wins in a row. When she went to West Virginia for the 2015 Junior Olympics, her first time on a plane and her first national tournament, she came home with a gold medal. “That’s when I realized boxing is really important because it gets you everywhere,” she says, “and that’s when I realized I was good.”
Her cousin started training less when he took a job as an agricultural worker and was too tired for the evening workouts, but America has stuck with it, finishing second in each of the last two Junior Olympics. Now 15, she’s ranked third in the U.S. among junior 125-pound boxers but will be nine months too young for the 2020 Olympics.
America is more conflicted than Sandra about her future in the sport. Her parents, a plumbing supervisor and a stay-at-home mom who emigrated from Mexico, are supportive of her boxing but want her to prioritize academics. “I’m not sure if I want to go pro or do the Olympics,” she says, fidgeting with the strings on a lavender sweatshirt marked with a Victoria’s Secret PINK logo. “I want to go to college, and I don’t know if I could keep up doing both of those things at the same time.”
America and Sandra became friends at nationals in 2015, and they still hang out at tournaments and text each other about diets, training schedules, and upcoming fights. America says it’s useful to commiserate: “I’m a teenager. I want to eat junk food like Hot Cheetos. I want a soda.” But she allows herself none of it. “She’s stubborn,” Aleman says with approval. With new boxers, he says, “it all depends how they get hit, how they react when people start throwing punches at them. In the ring, America did real good. She wasn’t scared at all.”
Sandra downplays the importance of being one of the few girls in the sport, but America, when asked what she wants to improve about her boxing, names not a technical skill but a symbolic contribution: “Probably bringing more girls into the sport because there’s not a lot that do boxing because they are probably scared. I think more girls should show the boys that we’re equal to them and we’re not as weak.”
The next question for America is whether she will be able to compete at December’s national championships to maintain — or improve — her ranking. Her parents are reluctant to allow her to miss a week of school to travel to Salt Lake City, and the family budget is tight. Financial struggles are common among Central Valley boxers; while equipment and gym time are relatively inexpensive, competing seriously requires frequent plane tickets. Aleman says the Central California Amateur Boxing Association raises more than $30,000 a year to help cover boxers’ travel costs, but because there are so many kids competing, there’s always a need for more.
Missing nationals has never occurred to Sandra, and with the tournament about six weeks off, she’s in the most intense part of her training schedule, sparring three to four times a week, doing strength and conditioning exercises twice a week, and competing in cross-country races on the weekends. Padilla, her coach, says she has a promising future, and he’s already thinking about how to market her. “I don’t want to be rude, but she’s not like a short and ugly girl who looks like a man,” he says. “She looks like a woman, and she’s good, so she has the potential to make a lot of money for that reason.”
Tonight, Sandra has a bit more homework to do in the car on the way back to Turlock while her dad listens to his favorite Christian radio station. But first, Padilla wants her to run drills hitting pads he wears on his hands. As Sandra fixes her hair and moves across the room to where her coach is waiting, two smaller kids scamper up into the ring: a boy from Turlock who rides with the Tovars to the Fresno gym and a 9-year-old girl dressed in a T-shirt with a rainbow-colored tiger design. Her name is Thalia Tamayo, but everyone calls her “The Tiger.” She has been taking boxing lessons since she was 3, and Padilla says everyone knows she’s tough. Two days later, she will travel to Modesto to fight her third match ever, improving her record to 3–0.