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The Thing About Progress: what I learned from winning and losing

Photo by Marek Urbanski  @urbanm11

Photo by Marek Urbanski @urbanm11

I think before I get into the thick of things, I should provide a little context and a snapshot of the emotional amusement park I call my mind.

I’ve always been an athlete growing up, dabbling in basketball from age 11 to 13 and picking up track and cross country throughout high school. However, after my first month of exposure to boxing, I knew this was something different.

There was never a question whether or not I would become a professional athlete. The answer was no. And that much has not changed. Basketball was something I learned because my brother played. I didn’t stick with it long anyway. Long distance running in high school was something that met the standard among my friends and students my age: becoming a student-athlete for college admissions or maybe just as a breather from classes.

Don’t get me wrong; I loved and am grateful for the experiences I gained because of the track program and the people I met, athletes and coaches included. Despite that, I was never the athlete I wanted to be. See, the thing about being okay with just meeting the standard, just “good enough,” is that the standard is what you become. For track, I didn’t believe I had the capacity of making it to State or anything significant like that. I wasn’t particularly talented in speed or endurance; it wasn’t what I was “meant to do.” Because of this, I did the workouts, tried my best in each race, and called it a day. I never pushed beyond what I thought I was capable of. I never gave it that extra inch, which I later realized was my biggest mistake.

Photo by Marek Urbanski  @urbanm11

Photo by Marek Urbanski @urbanm11

I got the chance to become the athlete, and in reality, the person I wanted to be when I joined the boxing program at CAL. From the beginning, boxing was personal for me. Aside from the beautiful intensity of the sport and the lessons it teaches with regards to courage and discipline, it was a chance for me to see what I can do within a sport when I put my heart and soul into it. It was the first time I believed I could be a champion.

Some heavy stuff, I know. The chip on my shoulder in the shape of boxing gloves weighed about three damn tons.

Fast forward two competitive seasons to the start of my last. By then, I had eleven fights under my belt, the result of never saying “no” to the opportunity to compete. I also accrued a stunning record of nine losses (yep, out of eleven). The weird thing is, that never really fazed me. My focus was on the National Champion title and how you get there didn’t matter. What mattered was getting to fight strong women with usually twice the number of fights I had and learning from those experiences.

This year, however, I could feel it. This was my year. I felt more ready and steady than I’ve ever been and in my first fight of the season, I lost. This was loss ten, but to me, it felt like the first real loss. To feel like I was the most prepared I’d ever been and that it still wasn’t enough made me question how far I’ve actually come and if I had what it took. Lesson #1: That is what happens when you let tangible results like winning or losing dictate your perspective, but more on that in a sec.

After my loss, I was hungrier than ever. I could feel my shot at actually winning Nationals slipping away and I used the hours in the gym and that last bit of push at the end of every hill sprint to snatch it back. Lesson #2: Experiencing what it feels like to lose is important. I don’t care what people say about being just as hungry after winning; there is always some feeling of contentment in knowing you have achieved and satisfaction in where you are. When you lose, you re-evaluate everything and you let the drive of disappointment and hunger push you through every workout. (In hindsight, this is probably not the healthiest perspective, but definitely the most natural and honest, at least to me.)

I won my next three fights. Yep, more than in my last two years combined. At the end of the third, the NCBA Western Regional finals, I became the regional champion. I was happy because it seemed like I was finally on the right track. But I was already looking towards Nationals, two weeks later.

The following two weeks were the toughest weeks, mentally and physically, I’ve ever experienced. I let the pressure and voracity for the title propel me through every two-a-day workout and sparring session. By the time we touched down for Nationals at JFK, I was one bread-starved and determined girl (shout out to all my fighter friends who grudgingly traded their love of bread for their love of boxing.)

Then, in the semi-finals on Friday, I lost. In my last season, with my last shot, I lost. Going into the fight, I was nervous and distracted and terrified. Lesson #3: Never let yourself forget what it feels like to have fun doing something you love.

You’d think after building all of this up, I would have crumbled. To be honest, after I stepped out of that ring, I felt…okay. Because here is what I realized:

When faced with the most important loss of my competitive career, I didn’t feel inadequate. Of course, I did my share of crying. I still feel that tiny twist in my stomach in knowing how close I came. I cried because I was disappointed. I cried with joy in thinking of all of the wonderful relationships I’ve made through this experience. I cried in realizing the finality of it all. Yet, I felt okay.

I landed a clean triple hook in a fight when I couldn’t even throw one correctly a year ago. I became an All-American and my girls and I took home CAL’s first ever third place Women’s Team Trophy, with just three people.

Most importantly, I realized that no tangible title or absence of one could dictate how I viewed myself as a boxer and what I knew I was now capable of. For the longest time, I felt like I had to prove something with boxing, to myself and to others. I thought winning a title was the way to do it. Yet, a big ass belt can’t fully communicate the literal blood, sweat, and tears people shed in the gym. It is a great symbol, reward, and reminder for those that busted their asses to get it, and I have all the respect in the world for those individuals. Hell, if I had another chance to shoot for it, I’d still do it. However, I realized that through my journey of clawing towards that title, I achieved what I never did in high school. I poured my heart and soul into this sport, I fell in love, and I became a boxer. Because of that, I want to thank every single person who has helped me along the way. I am sincerely grateful because not only have you all helped me become a boxer, y'all have helped me become the person I wanted to be. This season marks (probably) the end of my competitive career, but there is still so much work to be done, for me as a boxer and a person. And that is the thing about progress. Progress is not linear and is often intangible. But never losing sight of the necessity of progress is what winning truly feels like.

If you've read this far, thank you and please please leave a comment below if you have thoughts. If you want to know more, let's have a conversation, because I can definitely go on. If you're interested in reading about what else boxing has to offer, find it in this previous post: Confessions of a Collegiate Boxer

Stay fierce,

Viv