HAVANA: For eight years, Cuban boxer Namibia Flores has leaned in with a clenched jaw and raised guard to throw punches against all male training partners.
Flores follows the same preparation as her male opponents. She lifts the same truck tires and waits for the same opportunity to catch a break and get the chance to fight for her country.
But the 39-year-old woman with a body sculpted by grueling training is in a unique race against time to achieve an athletic dream in a country where female boxing is not recognized.
“I don’t see what is so dangerous for women,” Flores says, hair pulled back tight as she dons a foam helmet and steps into the ring to take on a male opponent.
Battling against odds and time, Flores punches on, hoping to fight for her nation, be an ambassador for the sport and an example for the women she hopes fight next.
Boxing is wildly popular in Cuba and the country has won 67 Olympic medals in the sport, more than any other nation apart from the much larger United States.
Other sports on the communist island are much more open to females, but boxing remains a redoubt of machismo and women are barred from competing.
Flores has likely already missed her chance to compete in the Olympics, which added women’s boxing in 2012 with an age limit of 40.
While the subject of women’s boxing isn’t frequently discussed publicly by sport authorities, sources close to the country’s boxing federation told AFP the opening of boxing for women was under negotiation, giving Flores reason for hope.
Inside a decrepit gym west of Havana, Flores is drenched in sweat in the ring during a sweltering Caribbean summer.
She throws a straight left trying to get through the defense of her partner and then follows that with a powerful right, exhaling loudly.
“Namibia has good physical strength, good technique, she hits hard,” says her sparring partner of eight years, Jonathan.
“There are women like Namibia who have such adrenaline, they need to release that energy,” comments Flores’s coach Isidro Barzaga off to the side.
By watching his protégé, Barzaga hopes other women will be inspired to box.
But women’s boxing still faces an uphill battle.
In 2009 as the sport was beginning to take off around the world, Pedro Roque, then a technical director of Cuban boxing, said that to protect feminine “beauty” it is necessary to keep women from taking blows to the face.
“I don’t see how boxing deprives women of their femininity, women are feminine at any time in any sport,” Jonathan said.
For Flores, boxing is an indispensable part of her life.
“With boxing I can remove the negative energy that builds up home, at work, day after day,” Flores says.
Crossing gloves with men daily gives her a thrill unlike any other.
“I dominate some,” she says, but “others surpass me”.
Last March, Flores traveled to the United States to attend a screening of documentary about her called “Boxeadora.”
While in the United States, she traveled to numerous cities and received offers to join American clubs.
But Flores says she won’t abandon her home nation.
“Why fight for the United States… if where I learned boxing is here,” she said before joining her coach in another intense training session.