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Swinging sisters: The Madrigal girls are tops in NW boxing

"To challenge yourself, you have to fight someone who actually knows how to fight.”

Up until the last few decades it was considered indecent for women to box. This year, women’s boxing will make its Olympic debut in the Summer Games of London.

The contenders for the first-ever U.S. Olympic women's boxing team face off in Spokane. It's a big development on the international stage. But the face of boxing has already been changing in small clubs across the Northwest.

Enter the Madrigal sisters.

Regulars at Wenatchee gym

There's an old apple warehouse outside of Wenatchee. It’s right along the train tracks. Go inside, and the rhythm of the train disappears into the rhythm of gloves on bags.

This make-shift gym has brick walls, no heating, and a roped-off boxing ring in the center. It would look straight out of the 1960s, if it weren't for three of the regulars: Eleni, Griselda and Maira.

Those are the Madrigal sisters, ages 24, 23 and 12. And they're all registered amateur boxers. Maira Madrigal, the oldest, is the Northwest's 2011 regional champion for her weight class.

“I can't picture myself doing anything other. It's what we do. We work and we box,” says Maira.

The Madrigals just returned from the Golden Gloves tournament in Tacoma. Griselda took the state championship there – a title met with cheers. But Maira says when they started seven years ago, competitions weren't like that.

“You never really heard people cheer for girls," says Maira. "They'd get into some guys but you know, dead silence while girls where fighting.”

That silence just drove them harder, says Griselda.

“They see a girl up there and say 'Oh, she's just a girl.' So you kind of have to prove them wrong,” says Griselda.

Court-ordered anger management

“These girls can really box,” says Dan Reierson, the Madrigals' coach.

He's catching Griselda's punches in round mitts and keeping his head out of the line of fire, or at least trying to.  Reierson is an East Wenatchee cop by day, who, as it happens, originally met Maira on the job.

“She punched some girl at school. And I got called to the call. And she wound up getting arrested for that. And that was how we met!” recalls Dan Reierson.

Maira was in a gang at the time. The court ordered anger management classes. Those didn't do much for her. Maira says it was boxing that really turned things around.

“It wasn't even worth getting [into] fights in the street anymore because I was doing it in the ring. You know, you can fight whoever in the street and they don't have the skills so it's not worth it anymore. To challenge yourself, you have to fight someone who actually knows how to fight,” Maira states.

Women enter into an ancient sport

The Madrigal sisters see little disparity between themselves and male boxers. Reierson says coaches are now starting to see it that way too.

“You know, there's still a lot more male boxers than female boxers," says Reierson. "But hopefully with the Olympics that'll get more girls out there. But just in the last few years, the skill level has just come up. Everybody's taking it more serious."

You can trace boxing all the way back to the ancient Greek Olympics. And men's boxing has been part of the modern games since 1904. But when it comes to women, the sport has been slow to change, says Sue Fox. She's a former boxer from Vancouver, Wash., and now runs WBAN, a women's boxing news website.

“If any historical event is going to help the sport it's going to be the 2012 Olympics. I think it's going to give worldwide exposure to people that did not even know that women box. And I’m hoping it brings these women to a higher level and more into the mainstream of the sport,” says Fox.

Olympic trials come to Spokane

The Olympic trials in Spokane are a coup for a city that's tried to brand itself as a sports destination. Eric Sawyer heads theSpokane Regional Sports Commission. He says fliers around town, TV spots, web promotions and other marketing materials have a key piece of iconography.

“The Olympic rings are probably if not the, then one of the strongest brands worldwide. Everybody recognizes them, so for us to be able to host an Olympic trial event and carry those rings forward is pretty significant,” says Sawyer.

Plus, there’s home-state appeal. The Olympic hopefuls include flyweight Alex Love of Monroe, Wash., and No. 1 ranked lightweight Queen Underwood of Seattle.

And there's another boxer at the finals who you've already met. Twelve-year-old Eleni Madrigal will fight in what’s known as an “undercard bout” with another young boxer from Montana. Eleni was pretty shy about talking on mic. But don't let that fool you ...

“Um, I don't get nervous at all when I fight,” says Eleni.

While most eyes turn to London, Eleni and her coach have their sights set on Rio de Janeiro. That's the location of the 2016 Olympic Games.

Inland Northwest Correspondent Jessica Robinson reports from the Northwest News Network's bureau in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. From the politics of wolves to mining regulation to small town gay rights movements, Jessica covers the economic, demographic and environmental trends that are shaping places east of the Cascades.