Fight to the finish: Utah mom chases her dream of boxing in the 2016 Olympics

Published: Monday, July 29 2013 9:45 p.m. MDT

Maryguenn Vellinga plays with her daughter, Ara Vellinga, at the end of her workout in Orem, Monday, July 29, 2013.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

OREM — The first thing Maryguenn Vellinga noticed is that being hit didn’t really bother her.

But it wasn’t the physical demands of boxing that intrigued the 31-year-old Heber City woman. After sparring just a few times, she realized the mental challenges in the ring far exceeded the physical demands.

“The physical skills I’d learned were irrelevant if I couldn’t keep my mental (acuities) about me,” said Vellinga, who competes in the 112-pound fly weight. “I was attracted to the challenge of keeping my focus mentally with all of the other stuff going on.”

The challenge wasn’t just to think through physical pain; it was really about silencing negativity, fear and doubt. Instead of seeing opportunity when facing a more experienced, skilled opponent, she would sometimes find herself grappling with the expectation that she should lose.

In a number of her early fights, she led in the first round, only to lose narrowly in the latter rounds.

“I’m my own worst enemy,” she said. “But I’ve always been attracted to things that challenge me.”

It’s a good thing Vellinga embraces life’s tough stuff because she isn’t just another athlete trying to master the Sweet Science. She’s a single mom who juggles the endless demands of motherhood, a full-time job and a brutal training schedule so she can chase a dream that some might see as improbable, impractical, even illusory.

Inside those ropes, she's found her purpose.

“That first day in the gym I knew I’d found my passion,” she said. “I thought it was rock climbing, but I realized immediately how wrong I was. I think about boxing every hour of every day. I changed my career path so I can pursue the sport.”

Her decision to climb into the ring three years ago changed the course of her life. And on July 13 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., she earned just enough confirmation that the dream might not be as elusive as it feels some days.

“I really needed that to encourage me to keep going,” said Vellinga, who won a silver medal in the women’s national Golden Gloves tournament. “I put so much time and effort into training that if it’s not going to take me somewhere, I really need to put that energy into my daughter.”

Her coach believes her success in Florida proves she has a real shot to represent the U.S. in 2016 at the first Olympic Games to include women’s boxing.

“It’s huge,” said Shane Stoneman, who had to coach her over the phone and ask other trainers to work Vellinga’s corner as they didn’t have the money for both of them to travel to Florida. “That was a rough week. She beat a girl who clearly beat her a couple of years ago, and she gained valuable experience. Those are the types of experiences she needs if she’s going to get to the Olympics.”

Vellinga has trouble finding fights here in Utah so she has no choice but to travel if she wants to find quality competition. That’s expensive and support has been extremely difficult to find.

“She has power and speed,” said Stoneman, who narrowly missed his own shot at the Olympics and now runs Stoneman Boxing. “She’s developed it. She’s made a ton of progress. The biggest thing is experience. She’s dedicated and tough enough to give it a good run.”

He said her work ethic and dedication have helped her improve quickly. Vellinga is fearless in her training and fighting. She accepts bouts with more experienced boxers, a practice some see as too risky.

“A lot of people don’t want to risk having a bad record,” she said. “I see it as an opportunity to test myself and to learn.”

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