Former NMU student Mikaela Mayer is one of only two U.S. women boxers who will compete in this month’s Olympics. Securing a spot on the team avenges her narrow miss in 2012, when women’s boxing made its debut as an Olympic sport in London.
“I had only been boxing for four years when I lost that, so my dreams did not die there,” said Mayer during a June phone interview while in Marquette filming an ESPN profile. “I had so much more to learn. I thought, ‘If this is where I am after a short time, imagine where I could be in 2016?’ I didn’t question sticking with it because I knew my goal was to win an Olympic medal. Falling short of the chance to compete for that the first time only made me hungrier for Rio.”
When she was a teenager in Los Angeles, Mayer said she lacked the structure and discipline now so critical to her sport. She was looking for a hobby to keep her grounded and found it at a muai thai kickboxing gym. Mayer later transitioned to boxing and realized that the lean 5’9” frame that had contributed to landing occasional modeling gigs would also give her the advantage of a longer reach in the ring.
Disenchanted with her training in LA, Mayer made what she describes as the best decision for her boxing career: moving to Marquette to join the former boxing program at the U.S. Olympic Education Center (now Olympic Training Site) at NMU.
“My dad saw it on the USA Boxing website and it sounded like a dream come true,” Mayer said. “You could train with a respected Olympic coach [Al Mitchell] and also get a college education. I was there within two weeks. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I saw all the snow and trees as my plane landed. Marquette is a connected and welcoming community. Everyone here has made me feel they’re proud of me and there’s a group of older men who run on the track with me and have conversations. The media here have been really supportive, too.
“If they hadn’t cut the USOEC boxing program a short time after I started, I probably would have had my degree by now. I attempted to go back to school two years ago, but had to suspend it to train and travel. I have every intention of finishing my degree when I’m done boxing.”
Upon her arrival at NMU, Mayer said Mitchell—now the owner of a Marquette gym—broke her down and then built her back up again.
“When I first came to him, I thought I was better than I was; it turned out I was horrible. Al’s such a technician. He instilled amazing footwork, long punches, good jabs and being technically sound. Once that’s down, everything else comes along.
Mayer won the Olympic Trials in November and moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs shortly after to train with the rest of the U.S. team under a new coach. Because only 12 women in the world compete in each weight class at the Olympics, she did not officially qualify for Rio until winning gold at an international tournament in March.
According to her Facebook page, Mayer left for Brazil June 19. She said she hopes to win an Olympic medal to achieve her goal, but also to raise awareness of women’s boxing.
“We’re in a transition now,” Mayer said. “The women’s team is top-ranked in the world and is actually getting more funding than the men’s because we’re producing more medals. At the professional level, I haven’t seen as much publicity for women’s boxing as I’d like. Now that we have the Olympics as a platform, that may change.”
The preliminary and semifinal bouts in Mayer’s lightweight division are scheduled Aug. 12 and 16.