Taversha Norwood's unlikely Olympic journey
As her school bus navigated the back roads of rural Rhine, Ga., little Vee Norwood had a knot in her stomach.
The rumor at her middle school was the Gaines kids were planning to beat her up. With large gold rings on each of her fingers, Norwood was ready to fight back. At 5-foot-nothing, she always had been an easy target for bullies, but her mother taught her to stick up for herself.
"My mom always told me, 'You should never start a fight, but you always finish it,'" Norwood said.
As she stepped off the bus, one of the Gaines kids pulled her ponytail from behind, and Norwood's fist went flying.
Norwood walked away unscathed, but her opponents weren't so lucky; being beaten up by the smaller Norwood damaged their egos.
Unbeknownst to Vee, now Taversha Norwood, she'd be knocking out opponents less than two decades later. With just two years of boxing experience, Norwood will participate in the first U.S. Olympic team trials for women's boxing.
Twenty-four women, eight in each of the three weight classes, will compete in a double-elimination tournament Monday through Saturday outside of Spokane, Wash. The three winners will advance to 2012 women's world championship to compete for a spot in London, where women's boxing will make its Olympic debut.
Norwood, 28, was a gymnast from age 2 to 13 and a member of the competitive cheer team at Hawaii Pacific University. She never thought she would be going to the Olympics as a boxer.
"I would stay awake at night dreaming of the Olympics," Norwood said. "I just didn't know how I was going to get there.
"Being part of the Olympic debut for women's boxing means my childhood dream finally came true and that anything is possible."
Norwood was discovered at a local gym by USA Boxing coach Anthony Chase Sr. Her titles include the 2012 Georgia state women's boxing championship, Georgia state Golden Gloves and 2011 flyweight national championship. She was also a semifinalist at the national PAL championships.
At 5 feet, 112 pounds, nothing about her size says boxer. She has a 2-inch Afro. She wears pink gloves and a welcoming smile.
During her first weeks of training, Norwood struggled with reversing her muscle memory and attitude. As a gymnast and cheerleader, she was taught to smile and maintain a flat-footed stance. Boxing is the opposite.
Boxers are always on the move with hunched posture. And opponents can pick up on weaknesses, so the trick is never to show emotion, hurt or fatigue.
"The first time I sparred, I hyperventilated and started crying because I didn't know what was going on," Norwood said. "I could see the punches coming, but I couldn't do anything about it. The next day, I knew I had to get back in the ring because I couldn't go out like that."
"I pushed her hard at first because I saw that she had the talent to be a boxer, but I wanted to see if she had the heart," Chase said. "After that, she had 20 fights in almost a year. That's heart."
Norwood also struggled with dropping weight to be quicker in the ring. After ending her collegiate cheerleading career, her weight went up to 130 pounds. She also was dealing with the death of her mother, which caused her physical activity to decline.
"Before I started boxing, I did nothing for about two years," Norwood said. "I was just so tired of working out."
Norwood changed her diet and added her least favorite exercise, distance running, to her workout regimen.
"Dropping the weight showed her dedication and gained our respect," said Richard Diggs, her teammate at the Atlanta Art of Boxing gym. "Now when she hits, it's like a quick cat-and-mouse game. She scores her points and gets out the way. Stick and move, that's what she does."
As if making a run for the Olympics with almost no experience isn't tough enough, Norwood also attended graduate school and worked as a personal trainer. She works at a community outreach center as a human resource specialist.
"Although I have so much going on outside of the gym, I have to leave it there," Norwood said. "I'm an athlete, and my focus is what separates me from the rest."
Focus is important for Norwood because her life has been a series of juxtaposing events. She has gone from a nonconfrontational gymnast to raging boxer.
From perky cheerleader to stoic fighter.
From being bullied as a little girl to seeking fights with grown women.
"If my mother saw me now, she'd probably say, 'Why do you want to box?' But I know she'd be my biggest cheerleader," Norwood said.
Norwood's mother told her never to start a fight, but with the potential to be an Olympic-bound boxer, it's now Norwood's job. The goal is to finish it -- in London.