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Boxer Madeline Guzman: Taking challenges in ring and out
by Julia Borcherts

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Imagine yourself stepping into a boxing ring at the historic Chicago Golden Gloves, a tradition since its inception in Chicago back in 1923. Spotlights blaze overhead as the roar of thousands of people echoes above the ring announcer's, "Ladies and Gentlemen! In the 132-pound female open division…" The adrenaline coursing through your veins gnaws at your stomach and sparks your nerves as you look across to the opposite corner and see your opponent hop from one foot to the other as she thumps her gloves together and tries to stare you down.

Your coach adjusts your gloves and gives you some last minute advice which you try to commit to memory as you feel your feet start to move in a light bounce that keeps your nerves from shredding. You shake your shoulders to loosen the tension and glance around the ring as the referee hands each of the ringside judges their scorecards and the timekeeper gets ready to hit the bell.

Your coach and the other seconds climb back through the ropes as you take a deep breath and for just a moment, you're alone in your corner and your heart is pounding so hard that you can feel it in your ears.

You could win. You could lose. Either way, at the end of three rounds, you'll likely walk out of that ring with bruises. If something goes horribly wrong, you could die.

The only way to keep injury at bay is to maintain your focus on your opponent for every second you're in that ring—on her hands, her feet, her rhythm, her jabs, her positioning, her punches and counter-punches. She's experienced, too, and the stakes are high so you know she's also bringing her A game. And she'll be looking for any opportunity to surprise you, to knock you down, to knock you out.

Imagine yourself taking a deep breath as the referee instructs you to move into the center of the ring to face your opponent.

Now imagine yourself facing this test without the benefit of peripheral vision.

That's one of the challenges facing lesbian boxer Madeline Guzman, 25, who competes March 21 in the top-level Open Division of the Chicago Golden Gloves despite having been diagnosed at age 18 with RP, also known as retinal pigmentosa.

"It's a disease which causes your retina to deteriorate over the course of the years till you actually are completely blind," she said. "My grandmother has RP—when they found out, I was about 7 or 8 but they didn't know then that it was hereditary. Then, my brother was diagnosed with it when he was 18. And then I started noticing that I had some vision changes when I played sports in high school. I went to get checked and it turns out that I had it also."

The disease, which is incurable, has symptoms including tunnel vision and night blindness. "Having RP is kind of like looking through a straw," Guzman said. "So you can see exactly what you're looking at but everything around is kind of just a big blur.

"I can't drive at night," she continued. "When I'm walking around anywhere, I shouldn't walk around by myself—I'm always kind of hanging onto my girlfriend. It looks like I'm clumsy but I just really can't see and I run into a lot of things, I've had a lot of accidents."

While others might have shied away from pugilism—a dangerous sport even if your vision is perfect—Guzman saw the challenge as an opportunity. "The reason I took up boxing," she said, "is because I feel like that's the one place where I can feel like I'm just on everyone else's level and I don't have to feel 'handicapped,' so to speak."

"There have been some significant changes but it's all about adapting," she said. "And because my central vision is so good, I guess you could say I'm more aware than any other boxer of where stuff is coming from. And I kind of see it before it's coming, so to speak, so I learned to adapt. Plus, it's in a confined space so I see perfectly fine when I'm in the ring."

Guzman, who was born and raised in Perth Amboy, N.J., first stepped into the ring as a competitor during a Florida amateur exhibition show.

"I was very scared," she said. "I was the 17th bout, so I waited a really long time and my nerves definitely got the best of me. Once I was in the fight, I guess I was out of shape and I was really tired. I told myself that I never, ever wanted to feel that tired ever again. And after that, I started doing a ton of roadwork."

The roadwork—which outside of boxing circles is known as plain old distance running—paid off and Guzman won a Diamond Gloves championship. When the New Jersey Golden Gloves tournament came around, no other female boxers had registered in her weight class, so the organizers flew in Jennifer Fenn, the daughter of Ann Wolfe—regarded by many as the best fighter in the history of women's boxing—for an exhibition match with Guzman.

"I lost," said Guzman, "but she's like number one in the nation, so it was awesome."

In February, 2011, Guzman moved to Chicago to be with her long-distance girlfriend, Marisol Garcia, who manages a Sally's Beauty Supply store. Guzman went to work as a customer service representative at Cleverbridge E-Commerce and began researching and scouting boxing gyms. After visits to several, she discovered Bridgeport's Chicago Boxing Club and its head trainer, Sam Colonna, whose many high-profile trainees have included former world champions David Diaz and Andrew Golota.

"It was love at first sight," Guzman said. "When you're looking for a coach that you're going to work with every day, it's kind of like a marriage. You have to make sure that you have great communication and that you work well together. And also that your trainer gives you back everything that you're putting in. With Sam, he's there every day and every chance that he gets, he's fixing something, correcting something and just praising you or giving constructive criticism."

And while she loves what she calls "the family environment" at Chicago Boxing Club, she does occasionally get hit on by clueless men despite the fact that Marisol often accompanies her to the gym to cheer her on during training.

"It definitely happens," she admitted, laughing. "Sometimes I'll be jumping rope with some random guy jumping rope next to me, trying to talk to me, and I just think he's trying to be friendly. And then later, Coach will be like, 'Hey, he was trying to take you out and I had to tell him, 'You're not her type.''"

In December, Guzman flew to Puerto Rico to compete in that country's national tournament for a spot on the Olympic team.

"I went against the Pan American gold medalist—who actually beat out the Argentinean, Mexican and USA girls in the Pan Ams," Guzman said. "It was all or nothing, one of those 'make it or break it' moments. I had to drop weight; it was very stressful.

"And then I got in the ring," she continued. "I fought a great fight, although I lost, but it was one of the best moments of my boxing career. And also the scariest ever."

However, even that was less frightening than when she came out at 14 in Perth Amboy, a small town where she felt that people weren't likely to be open to others being gay. She had been bullied as a kid for being a tomboy but found the courage to stand up for herself in middle school when her self-esteem improved through playing team sports.

Around that time, she also worked up the courage to come out by testing the news on people whose opinions she didn't care too much about. Then, little by little, she began sharing with people who mattered more to her.

"I used to work at an ice cream shop. I was behind the window when my parents came to pick me up," Guzman said. "We were closing and I just closed the shade and blurted it out! And then I was like, 'Oh my God, I have to go home now and deal with this.'

"I hid behind a lot of things," she continued with a laugh, referring to the automatic reflex that caused her to yank the shade down during her revelation.

However, despite the otherwise loving relationship she shared with her parents, their reaction was not what she'd hoped for.

"It was all bad," she said. "My parents threw the Bible at me and did the whole Adam and Eve thing. They were just really not supportive. They cried and told me I had to go to church and stuff like that. It hurt a lot."

But in the 11 years since, they've become more compassionate and less openly judgmental.

"It's gotten a lot better," she said. "They don't support the gay thing; they're not okay with the girlfriend thing. But they do like my girlfriend and they're respectful and they kind of just treat it as a 'she's just a really good friend' kind of thing. We're not respected as a couple but they do respect it as just a private thing, I guess."

Part of Guzman's ability to accept this compromise is that she truly does admire her parents, a metal refinery worker and a homemaker who still live in New Jersey.

"As much as they might be judgmental," she said, "my father's a big role model and he'll give you the shirt off his back. He's someone I really look up to. And my mom, she just wants to nurture and make sure that everything's okay."

One compromise that has been more difficult for Guzman, however, is the marketing of female boxers.

"It's pretty difficult because as sad as it is, everyone for some reason considers women boxers as some sort of sex symbol," she said. "And that's not what it is. We're athletes. And we should be respected as such.

"I've definitely encountered some people in my career that are like, 'If you're going to go to a weigh-in, wear this or don't dress boyish or don't let them know that you have a girlfriend,'" she continued. "I just feel that's some miscommunication with the boxing world. It's like they want the men to think that you're sexy—and that's why they should want to watch you. What I want is for everybody to watch me because I'm good—not because I'm hot or whatever they think the case is.

"It's about selling the fantasy," Guzman said. "I hate it."

Still, she feels that the benefits of boxing outweigh such drawbacks.

"I feel like boxing saved my life," she said. "I was a troubled kid, I was going down the wrong path. I was getting into trouble a lot, getting into street fights. I was just a big disaster. It helped me find a focus and get rid of a lot of anger issues that I had. It's just really made me who I am today. And I definitely hope that everybody comes out to see me fight, for sure."

So what can you expect to see when she competes in the Golden Gloves?

"Some real boxing, not pitter-patter, which I guess is what's expected from women's boxing," she said. "And a lot of action."

Her secret weapons?

"First off, I'm a southpaw," Guzman said. "And I have great footwork, so it's kind of hard for people to get me. Plus, I have Sam in my corner, so that's definitely a plus."

See Madeline Guzman compete in the 132-pound Female Open division at the 2012 Chicago Golden Gloves semifinals Wed., March 21 at Gordon Tech High School, 3633 N. California Ave. The first bout begins at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $15 and are available at the door or at .

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