Olympic dreams: Carlos Balderas
With the Rio Games upon us, the world is starting to catch Olympic fever - but teenage boxer Carlos Balderas has had the ‘bug’ since late 2015.
It was as early as the winter that Balderas found out he would be a member of Team USA, heading south to Brazil in August. Thanks to the complex nature of qualification for 2016 boxers, the Californian’s card was stamped by virtue of his performances in the World Series of Boxing.
Given how the removal of protective headgear and addition of professional pugilists to this edition of the Games have already muddied the waters, it was somewhat fitting that WSB - a hybrid of pro and amateur aspects - was the first gateway to the tournament.
However, despite having more time to prepare for his Olympic bow than the vast majority of those who’ll be populating the village, Balderas admitted to me at an event hosted by his manufacturers Under Armour in Baltimore that it took a long time for the reality to dawn on him.
“I got a phone call from a member of my team, telling me that I didn’t have to go through the trials,” Carlos explained. “It wasn’t really until three weeks afterwards that it sank in.
“I was getting texts and calls by a lot of friends and family, to congratulate me. It was getting too much at one stage so I just turned my phone off. And then, three weeks after I got the call, I was at home watching TV on the sofa when my grandmother visited and told me she tried to call but couldn’t get through. I told her I turned my phone off, she asked why, and I told her everybody was congratulating me for making the Olympic team.
“As soon as I heard myself say that, and I heard my grandmother reply that I should be happy because it’s a big deal, that’s when it finally occurred to me: ‘Man, I’m going to the Olympics!’”
Family means a lot to Carlos. His grandfather David had to leave his family behind in Oaxaca, Mexico in order to provide a better life. He eventually did just that, earning enough money working strawberry fields in California to move his wife and eight sons over. One of those sons was Carlos' father, Zenon, who was 7 years old at the time.
A strong performance in Rio would be the culmination of the life Carlos’ grandfather helped provide, and potentially a much-needed boxing medal for the country David brought the Balderas family into - with Carlos being the first member born on US soil.
Using his extra preparation time, the Mexican-American fighter is already doing everything in his power to make that happen.
“Preparations are good,” he explained. "Camp is going great, and I continued to box in the World Series of Boxing.
“I’ve been keeping my training balanced with swimming, CrossFit and anything else that can maximise my performance.”
Though the USA Knockouts weren’t successful in their World Series of Boxing campaign this season, the bouts were a useful learning curve for Balderas and his team-mates.
With professional boxers also participating in Rio, WSB could be the edge Balderas and other amateurs need to stay ahead of the curve.
He said: “WSB is very good for amateurs who want to turn pro. It gives them a little headstart for life in professional boxing.
“Our fights get a little TV exposure, the rules more like pro fights and it helps amateurs who turn pro hit the ground running.
“WSB is a little different. It’s kind of amateur boxing but it’s five rounds and it really uses more of a pro boxing atmosphere, with pro boxing scoring.
“You’re not just fighting anybody in WSB. You’re fighting the best. The matches are very balanced. Really evenly-matched guys are getting together and having great fights.
“It’s great for training and development because you expect a tough fight and you get one - and that means fans are getting tough fights that are great for them to watch.
On the forthcoming changes, Balderas says he can adapt to the added risk of one, but is staunchly against another - putting him in the same camp as many fans and experts.
“I wasn’t very comfortable wearing headgear during fights, but it does prevent a lot of cuts and injuries,” he explained. “I’ve been headbutted accidentally in fights and the headgear helps protect you from stuff like that.
“The headgear thing is a small matter in the grand scheme of things. Above all else, I think amateur boxing should remain amateur and the pros should stay pro.
“They’re called amateurs for a reason and I don’t think it’s a good idea to put pros in the Olympics along with amateurs. I don’t like it, but everybody has their own opinion.”
The US team - whose predecessors include Cassius Clay, Sugar Ray Leonard, Floyd Mayweather and George Foreman - won exactly one Olympic boxing medal at London 2012.
Does this pile the pressure onto Balderas and his compatriots to bring home the golds and turn the nation’s fighting fortunes around?
“I saw some of the fallout in 2012 when USA didn’t do so well, but I’m not too worried about that,” Carlos said.
“We have a very strong team. Each US fighter in their weight class is a very good competitor and has a real chance. We need to worry about ourselves and our performances in Rio.
“Everybody is focusing on themselves and their own weight class competition, and that’s how we can bring Olympic boxing medals back to the States.
A podium finish in Brazil wouldn’t just provide redemption for the US and validation of his family’s long journey - it would also complete Carlos’ ascension from a rough childhood rife with fights, petty crime and school suspensions
Legend has it that a 12-year-old Balderas was taken into a local gym where he immediately pointed to a poster of a professional fighter and proclaimed: “I wanna be like him”.
Almost eight years on, his hero-worship of that boxer has only strengthened.
He told me: “I look up to Manny Pacquiao not just because he’s one of boxing’s greats but I also idolise his devotion to God, how he always puts his faith and his devotion to religion first.
“Pacquiao never brags about how great he is. He always thanks everyone else, from his trainer to his team to God, for getting him to where he is today.
“I admire his skill in the ring, just like everyone else, but it’s the way he conducts himself outside the ring that I really admire. That’s what I want to be more than anything else.”
Olympic glory could well be what leads to a young troublemaker spotting a gym poster of Balderas in the future, and beginning a life dedicated to emulating their new idol.
And even if it does, it’s unlikely Carlos will brag about it. Even to his grandmother.