Flyweight Marlen Esparza told everyone around her that she'd step out of the ring after this summer's London Olympics. It seemed logical. The 23-year-old Houston-based boxer wanted to finish her college education -- she has about two years' worth of credits -- and business and entertainment opportunities were stacking up on her desk.
The inaugural women's Olympic boxing competition was an enormous success, but Esparza fell short of her own gold medal goal, bringing home a bronze instead, and found herself at loose ends when she returned. Her emotions began to shift within a week. Earlier this month, she Tweeted simply, "I'm going to 2016!!!"
Esparza is taking a few months off to rest and strategize about how she'll structure the next four years. She and trainer Rudy Silva have parted ways amicably and she's in the market for a new mentor. "I'm open to a lot of things,'' she said. "I'm not ever going to leave Texas forever, but if I have to do that to get to the Games, then yeah, I mean I'll do it. Wherever I find a good trainer that I'm comfortable with is wherever I'll be. I'm going to keep trying things out, obsessively, until I find something I'm good and comfortable with.''
Esparza spoke with ESPN.com's Bonnie D. Ford this week. These are excerpts from their conversation.
Ford: How soon after London did you reconsider your decision to retire?
Esparza: Probably the week I got back. When I make up my mind about something, I kind of don't hear what anybody says or thinks. I know what I want and that's what I'm gonna do. So I was being stubborn with myself. I had this game plan, since I can remember: Go to the Games. Win the Games. Go to school. Then I got home and I was still in that phase of thinking about what had happened and I [was] really mad about it -- but hey, I got a bronze medal, there's nothing wrong with that. To qualify to get there was the most difficult thing ever. Reality was starting to set in, what exactly happened and how it happened, but more in a positive way. And I realized, I can't stop doing this. It's really who I am. They say you're not what you do, what you do isn't who you are. But what I do is who I am and it taught me everything about myself in life, and I'm kind of lost without it. On top of that, I didn't get a gold medal. I'm still really young, I'm really healthy and I've been blessed with a lot of opportunities and a lot of doors have opened for me.
Q: So it sounds like it wasn't a light-bulb moment, it was kind of a process over a few weeks?
A: That's really how I operate. I'm not a spontaneous, make-a-decision kind of person. It definitely took a long time for me to register and admit to myself that my game plan was the wrong game plan. I don't feel complete yet -- I'll know the day when I feel complete, when I'm done, and it's not now.
Q: Did the fact that women's boxing was so well received in London play into your decision?
A: We didn't know how they were going to respond. We were just kind of worried about them not letting us into the next Games. So once everybody did love it -- I mean, the girls' tickets sold out quicker than the guys -- [the International Olympic Committee] told us there'll probably be more weight classes [in 2016], so now I know I'm not going to be getting ready for something that I don't know is going to happen.
Q: The dilemma for you is that you don't want to keep putting the rest of your life on hold to box, so what's your current thinking about how you're going to balance and juggle that with other things?
A: I had to juggle a lot when I was really, really young. As soon as I graduated from high school, I had to figure out what I was going to do about school, I had to figure out how I was going to work, because my dad was overwhelmed financially with what I was doing. I mean, my dad would pawn stuff to get me to tournaments. I had to figure out how to box, how to find a strength trainer, how to find a swimming coach. I had to figure out how to pay for it because financially I wasn't stable. Now, it's the opposite. I have all the opportunities, so the problem is how to coordinate it the right way. I'm not going to set myself up for failure. My support system went from three to 15 or something. It's going to make things a lot easier. Everybody is behind me. They know that everybody's getting something out of the fact that I'm a boxer and that's what I do. That always comes first. Every agency, every sponsorship knows that and everybody's on board.
Q: Are you still planning to go back to school?
A: I start in January. I'm going to start slowly because I know if I try to put on too much it'll be impossible. I'll never ruin my grades. I'm going to start at [the University of Houston] and [Houston Community College] -- they both said they'll help me and work with my schedule, they know the situation. I'm going to major in biology. My plan is to get my bachelors [degree] finished before 2014, and then that way when I start getting ready for the Olympics, which is a good two years of constant, hard-core, don't-see-anybody, don't-do-anything sheltered life, all I have to worry about is all the extra stuff, not school. Once I get out of the Games I'll go pre-med.
Q: What would you expect your next competition to be?
A: When's my next fight? I don't want to tell anybody I'm not going to let anybody prepare for it.
Q: Do you expect the field to be a lot deeper and stronger in Rio?
A: I think so. I hope so. Do I want to win? Yes but the long-term thing to me is -- when I'm, like, 60 years old I want to be able to watch professional women as the main event with crowds of people. Kind of like women's soccer. Now women's soccer is totally legit and better to watch sometimes than the guys. I want that to be the same thing with boxing. I think we put up with a lot, us female boxers. We stood in the shadows way too long. I'd like to make that happen and if that's what happens, people are gonna get better and that's what I want. It's going to be more difficult and challenging for me, of course, but that's just the way it is and that's the direction I want it to go.
Q: It doesn't sound like turning pro is in your long-term plan.
A: Professional is not really my style. People laugh when I say that because of all the endorsements and commercials and stuff I have, and the agencies that I work with, but I'm really not the flashy kind of -- "Let's talk about how I'm gonna beat you, I'm better than you" -- I keep those things in my head. I don't like to express those things out loud. I'm really tactile and agile which is more for amateur boxing. Let me get in, let me do what I'm supposed to do, let the better person win, shake hands, get out and go on to the next one. That's really my thing.