Fight to the finish: Utah mom chases her dream of boxing in the 2016 Olympics
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.”
Vellinga said her desire to embrace life’s challenges comes from the way she was raised. The youngest of four children reared by a single mother who grew up in Guatemala, Vellinga grew up on a watermelon farm in Santaquin.
“She made me feel like my value was going to come from my work ethic,” said Vellinga. “Her experiences made me feel like I had more to give, and like I didn’t know how strong or capable you were unless you pushed yourself.”
She’s worked since she was 6 years old, and recalls trying to get stronger so she could toss the watermelons like her older siblings and mom. She graduated from Payson High and then earned an associate degree from Dixie State before taking time to travel to Central America and work as a rock climbing and hiking guide in Southern Utah. She graduated from the University of Utah in international studies in 2009.
It was a shattered ankle that sent her back to school and eventually prompted her to seek a new hobby. She saw a flyer for the national Golden Gloves tournament hosted in Salt Lake City in 2009 and decided to go watch.
“I thought it looked fun, so I sought a gym,” she said. The class advertised for women was “outrageously” expensive, so she found a coach who gave her a one-on-one tutorial. But it wasn’t until she sparred that she fell for the sport and all its complexities.
A few months after taking up the sport, the International Olympic Committee announced women’s boxing would be included in the 2012 Games. She felt that with hard work, she could be ready by 2016.
“I know I only have a short period of time to do this,” she said, acknowledging her age is both an advantage and disadvantage. “I’m not naive. If I was a male, I’d have thousands of people to get through to qualify. I have two or three hundred girls to get through. I knew it was obtainable.”
The year before she took up boxing, she gave birth to her now 4-year-old daughter, Ara. She admits becoming a mother, especially a single mother, made some aspects of her new goal more challenging.
“For the first little while, I didn’t have a lot of encouragement,” she said. “Sometimes I didn’t tell my family I was going to the gym to train.”
She decided to give up working for a nonprofit, and instead found working as a waitress more lucrative and flexible. She didn't listen to those who thought she needed to give up the dream, settle down and focus on motherhood.
Vellinga feels she’s dedicated to her daughter, even making room for uninterrupted, one-on-one time before any training sessions.
“It’s a real challenge,” she said. “I even moved gyms because I couldn’t take her with me.”
She met Stoneman at a tournament and asked him to train her. He works to find her free or inexpensive gym time and trains with her whenever her schedule allows. He solicits sponsorships to cover travel expenses, and when he can’t find them, he just helps her pay them himself. They will miss the next national tournament as they try to raise money to go to the next Police Athletic League tournament.
Despite the hardships, she said she never seriously considered quitting.
“I knew boxing was giving me discipline,” she said. “I felt like I was also giving (Ara) a valuable lesson on not giving up on your dreams.”
Her family has become more supportive, and she said her friends and boyfriend offer critical emotional support. She said others have offered help, especially Larry Fullmer, the son of the late Don Fullmer and nephew of world champion Gene Fullmer. He helped her rehab from a shoulder injury that Vellinga said could have ended her career.
Her family and friends are starting to see what boxing brings to both her life and Ara’s.
“The truth is, they see it makes me happy,” she said. “And they see my daughter is a smart, happy kid. It’s taken some time being successful for that to happen. I knew I was capable, and I didn’t want to ever regret giving it 100 percent. I didn’t want to look back with regret.”
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