- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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Queen Underwood is still fighting.
Less than an hour after the U.S. lightweight boxer became the first American woman to step into an Olympic ring, the five-time defending national champion is dancing around the media area, hands still wrapped and sweat fresh on her brow.
"I was a little off balance and after the second round, I was down by one point," she says, bouncing onto her toes and drawing her fists to her chin. "It wasn't working, doing what I was doing and I wanted to go for it." She turns her body slightly away from the small group of journalists still gathered in the media area and shuffles her feet, her right fist poised to deliver a blow.
"She was up on the ropes. If I would have sat back and tried to play a chess match, it would have looked like I wasn't aggressive enough, like I didn't want it bad enough," she says, miming a wild strike with her right arm, the one with the word "Queen" tattooed down its side. "I wanted to land that haymaker. I wanted to show everybody that no matter if I was down or not, I would do all I could in there. If that would have landed, that would have been awesome."
With those last words, Underwood flashes her hallmark smile for the first time since losing 21-13 to Natasha Jones of Great Britain in the round of 16. Three times already, a USOC rep has tried, unsuccessfully, to pull her away and end her interview session, but Underwood's not ready to stop talking, not ready for her Olympic journey to end here, so soon. It's as if, if she keeps talking, keeps moving, she will be able to siphon a few extra moments of time before her career as an amateur boxer comes to an end.
"I stuck around for four years to have this opportunity, this chance," she says. "I didn't want to throw away all my hard work. I wanted to get to the highest level and this is it. This is the end of my journey," she says, announcing her plans to turn pro after taking a much-needed break. "I just wish and hope, as far as the fans and people who've been there for me, that they can look at my journey as a champion, as opposed to this decision."
When she emerged from her initial television interviews, her shoulders sagged and she struggled to lift her gaze from the ground. She leaned against the barrier separating journalists from athletes looking much smaller than she had in the ring. She looked, in a word, defeated.
"I dreamed of it going a lot better than this," she says. "I gave away half my life for this and it doesn't feel like the reward of just being here is enough. This is history for amateur boxing, but it's not enough for me. I don't look at being an Olympian as great. Bringing back a gold medal would have been great."
Slowly, however, as she spoke, as she danced, the Queen began to soften, began to accept her place in boxing history. To take pride in how far she's come. Earlier this year, Underwood spoke to The New York Times about her childhood and being sexually abused by her father. In a recent blog post for espnW, she wrote that when she found boxing, "I wanted to be a champion. When I fight and hit the bag, it is to be great, to be a champion. I am not in the ring to fight against a bad dream. I am in the ring fighting for a dream."
On Sunday afternoon, Underwood fought not just for her dream, but for the dreams of the young girls boxing in gyms around the country, around the world. By stepping into an Olympic ring, she joined a list of American fighters that includes Cassius Clay, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Evander Holyfield and Roy Jones Jr. She becomes the first American woman and, because of the day's schedule, the 10th woman ever to be introduced at an Olympic boxing match. But it will take time for the realization of what she's accomplished to replace the sting of a loss.
Underwood has said in the past that what drew her to boxing was the pageantry, the lights, the introductions. Nothing she's experienced was as grand as her introduction Sunday -- when she walked out of a tunnel lit by red flashing lights to the cheers of a packed arena, the notes of Lenny Kravitz and the introduction from an announcer who preceded her name with "Olympian."
"It's a historic moment," said Errol Spence, the only member of the men's team still remaining in the tournament. (After initially losing to Krishan Vikas of India, the competition jury overturned the loss, citing a total of nine holding fouls committed by Vikas, and handed Spence a second chance at a medal here in London.) Every member of the men's team was in the arena to see Underwood's historic match. "A lot of young girls are going to be following in her footsteps. I think it's a great thing to give young girls and women something to dream about," Spence said.
Despite Underwood's early exit, the U.S. women's team still has two chances to medal here in London. Flyweight favorite Marlen Esparza and 17-year-old middleweight Claressa Shields earned byes into the medal rounds and fight their first bouts on Monday. Either woman could become the first American boxer since Andre Ward in 2004 to win a gold medal.
"It was so exciting. I've known Queen for quite a few years and I know how hard she worked to be here," says men's team captain Jamel Herring, who's a sergeant in the Marine Corps. "It's been a rough year, a long road for her to get here, but she is a great team captain. We don't judge by gender on our team. I take her advice all the time. I'm proud of her and the team is proud of her and I know every American back at home, men and women, are excited to see how far she's come."
It will take some time, Underwood says, before she is able to look back on this experience and accept that just being here was the fulfillment of a dream, the culmination of five years of focus and a lifetime of fighting back.
"Since 2007, I never gave myself a break," she says. "I'm due for a rest. I'm tired, guys. This has been a hell of a journey. Now I'm ready for life."