When it comes to the Olympic Games, Team USA athlete and Army Staff Sgt. Naomi Graham isn’t pulling any punches. Her chance at making an ultimate dream come true is finally here — fighting for her country in the boxing ring.
“I just want to box,” said America’s no. 1 middleweight a few weeks before the start of the Tokyo Olympics. “My goal has always been to go to the Olympics. [If I won a medal] I would probably break down crying in the middle of the ring. I can really feel that.”
Even if she doesn’t bring home the gold, Graham will enjoy the significance of being the first female active-duty service member to compete in the Games. The 32-year-old ranked first in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for boxing … then COVID happened, postponing the Summer Olympics for another year.
The news was a disappointment just a week before the qualifiers, Graham says, but it didn’t knock her out. In fact, she used the opportunity to improve.
“I told myself, you know, ‘I’ll just work on more things.’ There are always things to work on. There are so many different ways to throw a combination. It’s a lot to learn.”
This year, Graham says she’s more ready than ever and actually grateful for the additional time to train.
“No matter what, you get it done, and I feel like that’s why I was one of the ones to handle the COVID situation the best,” she said. “I was like, ‘Well, we can only do what we can do, but I know I want to be an Olympian. So I’m going to do what it takes to be an Olympian.”
Discovering the gloves
Overcoming adversity isn’t new to Graham. She grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, one of six children in a lower-income family, and describes being homeless and involved with a tough crowd at one point during her younger years. It wasn’t easy, she says, but her struggle eventually helped with motivation.
“Not being able to do sports I wanted to do, you know, it made me want to be successful even more,” she said. “I said that I was going to be bigger than everybody expected me to be. I was going to go for everything that I want to do — all of my goals — and I set them up. And that’s what I’ve been going for, you know, and I really do think that it helped me fight hard.”
Graham first got the urge to fight while watching her sister become involved with the sport and following her to a local boxing gym. She attributes her military aspirations to another family member — her mother, who served for six years.
“I told my mom I wanted to give back and be a part of something bigger than myself,” Graham said. “So I would talk to her about it. I knew at a young age I wanted to join.”
Her first duty station was with the 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment at Fort Carson, Colorado. After winning the All-Army boxing title in 2014, she joined the Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), also at Fort Carson.
Graham says the Army, as well as WCAP, made a big difference in her development as a boxer because it allowed her to train full time for the Olympics. She adds the Army does its best to provide all of the resources she needs as an elite athlete — equipment, coaches, etc.
Regular training and resources led her to her first event at the national level with WCAP in 2015. Graham then competed in the Olympic Trials, after just 10 fights, by the end of that year.
“If I feel like I can’t go any further or I’m tired, I push past it,” she said. “I feel like I’m constantly surprising myself and showing myself how strong I am physically and mentally as well. It takes a lot to get in there.”
Passion trumps pain
For Graham, the physical challenges of fighting are easier to overcome.
“I didn’t know what to expect my first fight,” said Graham about bracing for repeated blows to her body. “I was very nervous. Punches felt different in the beginning, but as you keep going and get to the international level, people think it hurts but it really doesn’t. Unless they throw something really, really hard, it’s not what people think.”
What is more difficult? Preparing the mind, she says.
“I went through a lot with boxing, and honestly, you know, the sport is you going against someone else’s will. I feel like it’s brought a lot out of me and taught me a lot about myself.”
Graham’s will is not to achieve personal success alone. She also strives to set an example.
“I love this sport,” she said. “I am passionate about this sport. I want to show people that they can come from not having much and be an Olympian. I have to remind myself, I’m not doing this for me. Other people may be in my situation or worse. They may look up to me. Whatever goal they have in their life, they may be like, ‘You know what, I could do it if she did it.’”
This two-time national middleweight champion boxer has done a lot, including winning a gold medal in the 2019 Pan American Games. Despite all of her achievements in the amateur arena, Graham says she has no desire to go pro. While many fellow boxers she knows have the ultimate goal to get a World Boxing Council or pro belt, Graham says she has always been focused on wearing her coveted prize around her neck.
“I always told myself I was going to the Olympics,” she said. “Never put limitations on yourself. You have to never give up, stay focused on your goals and your dreams and anything is possible for anyone.”
Read more about Naomi Graham at https://www.teamusa.org/usa-boxing/athletes/Naomi-Graham.
Best training fuel?
My go-to drink is a mix of tart cherry, elderberry, turmeric, and ginger.
Favorite cheat meal?
Cold Stone Creamery or cheesecake.
How do you prepare for a match?
Meditation is mainly what I do. I’m visualizing what I want to do and what I want to happen.
Has your military training given you an advantage?
Through patience and resiliency. I feel like the Army makes you feel like no matter what, you get it done.
Do you get scared before entering the ring?
Everybody gets a nervous feeling before they get in. They say if you stop getting that feeling, you should stop boxing.