Lauren Fisher: Cinderella Woman

Lauren Fisher has a fighting chance at competing for female boxing’s first gold medal at the 2012 Olympics.

Lauren Fisher gets in three or four fights a day, often with men twice her size. For someone who gets hit in the face an upward of 400 times a week, the 24-year-old featherweight is downright serene. It wasn’t always this way. Before she laced up a pair of boxing gloves for the first time, before the bloody noses and body bruises, Fisher was in a worse kind of pain.

In 2007, she was a wayward student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. A lifelong athlete and point guard on IUP’s women’s basketball team, Fisher had a falling out with her coach and abruptly fell out of love with the sport. She quit the team and, soon after, quit school altogether.

“I spent a year out of school moving around a lot,” Fisher says. “I had a lot of anger issues, and I slept on a lot of friends’ couches.” Fisher was in a free fall when she walked into trainer Rick Fanella’s gym, an old two-car garage beneath a ranch house in Indiana, Pa., that was converted into a haven of heavy bags, headgear and heavy metal. The 5-foot-4-inch, 120-pound couch surfer had never boxed in her life. She simply wanted to hit something that day. Fanella obliged.

“There was only one other female in the gym,” Fisher recalls. “But the guys were very respectful. I would show up every day, even when they wouldn’t. The most important thing you can do in life is keep showing up.” When Fisher wasn’t flipping pizza dough at a local restaurant, she was boxing. The natural athlete was quick to learn the sweet science, but when she laced up the gloves for her first sparring session, nerves got the best of her.

“I was so worked up that I threw up in the ring,” Fisher remembers. Despite the rough start, Fanella saw potential in the petite pugilist, especially the rapid-fire maelstrom of jabs she rained down on overwhelmed sparring partners, or as Fisher’s motto goes, “punches in bunches.” Fanella started pushing her hard.

“It was like old-school Rocky-style training,” Fisher says. “Coach had me hammering tires and carrying 80-pound logs up and down a big hill.”

Still, because of the lack of female fighters in the region, one year passed before Fanella could find an official bout for Fisher. When he finally got her on a local card, she couldn’t overcome the pent-up excitement. She wore herself out in the opening rounds and lost on a judge’s decision. Many boxers never overcome an 0-1 start.

The old Fisher may have spiraled out of control, may have quit. But that was another life—before the firewood sprints and blood-stained canvases. “Even though I lost, it was a good learning experience getting hit for the first time,” Fisher says. “I thought, ‘Hey, I can handle this.’”

She did a lot more than handle it. During the next year-and-a-half, Fisher terrorized the upper echelon of the female boxing circuit. She used her speed and finesse to woman-handle boxing lifers and Golden Gloves winners. This summer, she delivered a shock of Balboan proportions by defeating the legendary Sacred Downing at the 2010 USA Boxing National Championships in Colorado Springs. Downing had won the last six national titles. It was just the 14th fight of Fisher’s life.

“When I stopped Sacred from breaking the record of national championships,” Fishers says, “that’s when it really hit me … the Olympics.” The London 2012 Games will feature the first-ever women’s boxing event, and Fisher has her eyes on the gold. She enters 2011 as USA Boxing’s top-ranked female in the 119-pound weight class and has more than a puncher’s chance at being named to Team USA—not bad for three years’ work in an Indiana garage.

Now, Fisher trains with USA Boxing coach Bonnie Canino near Miami, where she pays the rent by working shifts at Nordstrom. However, she keeps western Pennsylvania close to her heart. Being a world champion is cool and all, but it pales in comparison to Fisher’s other new title: alumna.

“I went back and completed my degree in fashion merchandising at IUP last year,” Fisher says. “Maybe after I win a gold medal in London and turn pro, I’ll consider the modeling thing.”

Talk about a knockout.

Categories: From the Magazine, Sports