queen_underwood_tiara_brown_web.jpgAIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. (AP) — Christina Cruz and Queen Underwood both devoted their lives to boxing several years before women had any hope of Olympic glory. They pursued their sport on love and faith, determined to be prepared for any opportunity to make a career out of fighting.

That opportunity arrives this week at the first U.S. Olympic team trials for women's boxing. At a resort-casino outside Spokane, 24 fighters are competing for just three spots on the national team and the chance to earn an Olympic berth at the world championships in China in May.

Cruz and Underwood, the two-time national champion lightweight, are trying not to dwell on the history they'll make this week when the fighters take the Northern Quest ring in U.S.A. uniforms and headgear for their four-round bouts. They're all focused instead on the opportunities that materialized three years ago when the IOC finally added women's boxing to its program at the London Games.

“We know it's a part of history but we're all focusing the thoughts in our head,'' said Underwood, who worked construction in Seattle to pay bills before her amateur ascent. “This is history, yeah. It's only going to come around once but this is still our job. I'm not going to get excited and relax now. We all came too far.”

The transformation of women's boxing from a compelling sideshow into a serious sport has taken decades and it's still incomplete. U.S. National Coach Joe Zanders, who has coached amateurs of both sexes for 38 years, reminded the competitors Sunday just how the sport arrived at this auspicious point during a team meeting in a hotel ballroom.

“The spirit of a lot of women is in this room, a lot of women who never got the chance to box, who got too old and weren't allowed to do it,” Zanders told the athletes. “Don't forget about that.”

USA Boxing banned women's competitions until a federal lawsuit in 1993 and the International Boxing Association (AIBA) began overseeing the sport only in 1994, holding its first world championships in 2001. Boxing was the only sport in the Summer Olympics without a female analogue until 2009, when the worldwide rise in popularity became impossible to ignore.

When the IOC accepted women's boxing for London — albeit in just three weight classes with 36 total competitors —gyms across the world saw an upsurge in interest from athletes eager for an Olympic opportunity. For the fighters who had kept the faith, the IOC's decision was validation.

Photo: AP Photo

BATTLING FOR THE OLYMPICS:  Queen Underwood from Seattle, Wash., left, lands a punch to the head of Tiara Brown from Lehigh Acres, Fla., during their women's 123-pound USA Boxing National Championship title bout.