Boxer and USC doctoral candidate Tamara Espinet casts her sights on Olympic gold
By André Coleman 06/25/2014
Pasadena’s Tamara Espinet has not lived the oft-heard story of using boxing as a vehicle to escape poverty or gangs. Rather, the award-winning pugilist has used the sport to beat her inner demons, which have plagued her since she was a youngster.
“I struggled with depression when I was a teenager and I had self-esteem problems,” the 31-year-old Espinet recently told the Pasadena Weekly. “I overdosed on pills twice and took massive amounts of codeine. I hated myself.”
In 2000 Espinet found boxing, and as her talents developed her self-esteem improved. Two years later, she left her childhood home in Toronto and came to the United States before moving in 2004 to Pasadena, where she trains at the Villa-Parke Community Center Gym.
That newfound confidence led Espinet to USC, where she earned an undergraduate degree in kinesiology. Currently, she works as a full-time lecturer in the human and evolutionary biology department at USC while pursuing a Ph.D. in higher education.
Her boxing education was scheduled to advance in early June in a four-round bout at the Adidas National Boxing Tournament in Oxnard, but the fight was canceled after organizers were unable to find an opponent for Espinet in the 119-pound weight class.
Espinet will fight next in July at the World Amateur Boxing Tournament in Indio for the Desert Showdown Championship, which she won last year. Espinet has also won the Intercollegiate Boxing Association National Championship and the Golden Gloves State Championship.
“She’s dedicated, disciplined and she has a great deal of character,” said trainer Fausto De La Torre. Espinet lives in Pasadena and trains at the Villa-Parke gym five days a week.
“It’s who she is and what she has been through that has made her successful,” De La Torre said.
Espinet was born in Quebec in 1983 to teenage parents. She was raised in Toronto after her parents split up when she was 5. Both parents remarried and had additional children, which led to Espinet playing a large role in raising three siblings with whom she lived.
“I had a lot of responsibility placed on me and I was expected to keep high academic standards at the same time I was playing basketball, baseball and running track,” she recalled.
Soon after high school, Espinet, who describes herself as fiercely independent, wanted to get away from Canada, so she moved to Los Angeles to attend USC and find some balance in her life.
With no financial support from her parents, Espinet took out $200,000 in student loans to make it through college on a work visa. She was almost forced to return to Canada three years ago when her work visa was about to expire, but managed to stay in the country after she was hired by the university. Last year, she was forced to declare bankruptcy after a year of living on credit cards to make ends meet.
“She’s had her struggles,” De La Torre said. “She moved here by herself and did not know anybody and had no support and now she is struggling to make ends meet. It’s not the Rocky story, where the guy was looking for one shot at success to turn his life around. Her story is about the person who found success and now the bills on that success have come due and she has to pay them. That’s the modern-day Rocky story.”
And now she is using that story to inspire students in the gym.
Despite her own troubles and a full-time job that connects her to 150 kids at USC, she still finds time to help mentor teenagers in the boxing program at Villa-Parke in Pasadena.
“One of the teenagers training at the gym wasn’t doing well in school,” she said. “I never knew why, and one day he told me that the principal told everyone that only 2 percent of them would go to college and only 1 percent would be successful.
“Why would you tell them these disheartening statistics? You’re trying to educate them,” Espinet said. “Who can blame them for not taking their educations seriously? I try and encourage them to keep going and work hard in school.”
Upon first meeting the quiet and somewhat shy Espinet at the gym, it is hard to imagine the feminine but muscular woman beating up an opponent. Upon seeing her hit the heavy bag at the gym and move in the ring, however, it quickly becomes obvious that she is a natural boxer, one who relies on thinking and strategy rather than brawling.
“I am somewhat of a pacifist,” she said as she studied the bag in front of her between each jab while speaking with a reporter. “I think about it more as a sport of thinking and strategy more than hitting. Getting hit in the face doesn’t hurt that much. It’s getting hit in the body that’s painful.”
Using a style of constant movement and a well-honed skill set led by a stiff jab and strong right hand, Espinet has compiled a 10-5 record. She won her first fight on a technical knockout in the first round.
“It was exhilarating,” Espinet said. “I love the individual aspect of boxing compared to team sports. Fausto works with me and I train hard, but then it’s all on me to take care of business when I am in the ring.”
In September she was scheduled to fight four two-minute rounds in the Blue & Gold Invitational National Tournament in Menifee, but a mistake by the timekeeper resulted in four three-minute rounds. Espinet went on to win anyway, via decision.
Espinet hopes the string of victories will lead her to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she hopes to help build up the sport.
Women’s boxing fell back into obscurity after champion Laila Ali, daughter of legendary heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali, decided to hang up her gloves in 2007. Five years later in London, women’s boxing made its first appearance in the Olympics. At that event, Claressa Shields became the first woman to win a gold medal for the United States. If Espinet makes it to the games in Rio de Janeiro, she will represent Canada.
“Most people don’t know who Claressa Shields is, and they should. I bet most people couldn’t even name a female boxer. The sport is in bad shape. I want to do my part to help turn it around.
“It’s been a dream for me since I was 4 years old,” Espinet said during a brief break from training. “I’ve played every other sport and I have always been an athlete, but this is the one that I love the most. When I found boxing, something about it raised my self-esteem and my confidence, and that has improved the rest of my life.”