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A broad smile easily crosses Quanitta “Queen” Underwood’s face, lighting her up. Gone during these moments is the tough stance and penetrating stare she wears in the boxing ring, where her lightning-fast punches have earned her five national amateur titles. But it may be in the ring where she’s happiest. Competing in the lightweight (132-pound) class, Underwood offers the United States’ best chance for a gold medal this summer during the Olympic debut of women’s boxing.
Underwood has dreamed of this moment, worked for it, sacrificed many things for it. For the past several months she has given up everything for boxing—her home, a pipefitting career paying almost $40 an hour, time to be with family and friends, and even her beloved 2-year-old bull mastiff, King (she’s dipped into savings to pay for his indefinite boarding). In the process, she’s also publicly revealed a ghastly family secret in hopes it’ll give strength to others.
Outside the ring, Underwood’s quiet demeanor seems somewhat incongruous. She says she has never been in a fistfight. And as Barbara Walters put it on The View: “You look so beautiful. I can’t imagine you knocking somebody out.”
Underwood began boxing late, at age 19. Although she had been a nimble yet powerful high school athlete—running track, playing basketball and dead-lifting 357.5 pounds—she didn’t immediately win boxing bouts. Then something clicked. Now, day in and day out, 28-year-old Underwood so often visualizes herself boxing that she has had to learn to shut down her mind to get rest.
“My whole motto is ‘Can’t stop, won’t stop,’ ” she says. “There would be times I thought: I want to stop. Why do I have to do this? Why do I have to be this strong person? Why do I have to do all these goals? And the ‘can’t stop, won’t stop’ is like because I can’t stop and I won’t stop. I don’t know. There’s something that’s driving me.” Even after a bad day, she finds she awakens the next morning with a refreshed attitude, ready for training. “I don’t know why I have to be like this. It’s just me. It sucks,” she says. She chuckles, flashing that broad smile. “Because I’m never going to be that person that just gives up on myself.” She chuckles again.
Following the first-ever Olympic boxing trials for women, Underwood has a rare week off to concentrate on publicity. I catch up with her at her friend’s apartment outside Tacoma, Wash., where she’s staying. Two smartphones—one for business, one personal—lie within arm’s reach. A cross hangs from her neck; she bought it before she started training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs: “I wanted God to bless me on my journey forward.”
So far, so good. At the trials in Spokane, where she won the lightweight division, she experienced a first. Instead of being ignored in typical amateur obscurity, she heard the chants of friends and relatives who made the trek from her native Seattle. “Queen! Queen! Queen!” they shouted.
“It was amazing. It reminded me of one of those, you know, the greatest fights where you hear people chant your name. That really got me going and kept me pushing and working hard for them,” says Underwood, sitting on a sofa, appearing relaxed in sweatpants and a red “Team USA” long-sleeve T-shirt.
It was the pageantry of TV fights with big names like Oscar De La Hoya that prompted her to walk into Cappy’s Boxing Gym in Seattle to try the sport, after her athletic career ended at Seattle’s Garfield High School (alma mater of Quincy Jones and the school from which Jimi Hendrix was expelled). As an apprentice pipefitter at the time, she liked how boxing cost little and helped her build a family of sorts. “Whatever you put into it, you can get out of it. I felt I could do this and I could be a champion,” she says, adding, “It definitely isn’t easy.”
Working as a pipefitter apprentice and then a journeyman paid her bills until she was laid off and began devoting herself full-time to boxing. “She could outlift some of the guys—some of the young guys,” recalls Lynne Stimson, who, as fire sprinkler service manager at McKinstry Co. in Seattle, remembers only one other female apprentice at the company in nearly 13 years. “It’s a man’s world. It is difficult. She was part of the group, though. They didn’t leave her out.”
If there were doubters, “I proved them wrong,” Underwood recalls, “because of my hard work and ability to take a lot and hold a lot in. And I was good at what I did.”
Underwood learned early how to hold a lot in. She was good at that, too, until she couldn’t anymore.
As a child, raised by her father after her parents divorced, Quanitta shared a bed with her older sister Hazzauna. When the girls were about 10 and 12, their father began creeping into their room at night, slipping into bed and sexually abusing Hazzauna. At first, Quanitta feigned sleep and, as the abuse continued, she pretended to be about to wake up, tossing and turning so much that their father began taking Hazzauna from the room.
Later, Hazzauna would reveal that she feared their father would turn to Quanitta if she resisted him. But it happened anyway, when Quanitta was in seventh grade, she says.
The girls never spoke of the abuse. “It was just like this secret that I held deep inside me,” Underwood said on The View. Until one day when the girls were about 13 and 15, and Hazzauna finally asked her little sister if their father had touched her. That opened the floodgate.
Living in South Carolina at the time, they tracked down a phone number for their mother’s workplace in Seattle. Their mother, who was just 14 when she gave birth to Hazzauna, called police.
Few people were aware of the childhood secret until Underwood revealed bits of her story online. “One day, I’m going to be great! I’m going to change lives and I’m going to help people that are hurting and don’t have any place to turn,” her story begins at QueenUnderwood.com. “One day, I’m going to have the kind of parents who take care of me and keep me safe. One day, I will be able to sleep through the night without fear that the doorknob will turn and the pain will begin. One day, I’m going to be the ‘Queen of the Ring’ and nobody will ever hurt me again. One day, I won’t be 12 years old and feeling helpless; one day I’ll be strong and unstoppable.
“This is the dream that kept me going. This is the dream that kept me from losing my mind in the midst of abuse and violation,” Underwood states on the website. “This is the dream that has made it possible for me to stand in front of you today and say I am a Champion, inside and outside of the ring. I am a Winner because what could have destroyed me didn’t; it made me stronger, more determined and more focused.”
Underwood’s revelations prompted a reporter from The New York Times to interview her over three occasions to learn the full story, including what happened to Underwood’s father, who served six years of a seven-year prison sentence in exchange for pleading guilty to sexual abuse of both girls. Reluctant to speak openly about the details at first, Underwood nevertheless felt compelled to use her story to encourage others. “God, I can’t believe I’m putting the story out there,” she told the reporter.
Through her website and nascent foundation, Living Out the Dream, she wants other victims of sexual or physical abuse to know what she’s realized: They’re not alone, and it’s not their fault. Her message prompts thank-yous from strangers. “I was raped when I was younger, and I haven’t been able to open up about it,” emailed one. “I’m in therapy and having the most difficult time talking about my situation.… ”
“[Through] this whole journey and me opening up, I’m finding more importance and meaning to my life,” Underwood says. She knows what it’s like be stuck in a bad situation and feel like you can’t see the light, what it’s like to say: Why me?
She wants to help people going through hard times to see that things can get better. She’s already proved that to herself. This summer in London, Queen Underwood aims to show the world.
To hear Queen Underwood tell her story in her own reads, see our web exclusive, In Her Words: Queen Underwood's Inspirational Story