Mariah Bahe is a quiet and unassuming teenager, but she trains with the intensity of a seasoned prizefighter. She’s made headlines as a fighter—Bahe won the 2018 Arizona State Junior Olympics title in her weight class and the bronze medal at the 2018 Nationals—even though she’s barely out of middle school. And she is already recognized as a leader at the Damon-Bahe Boxing Gym, a storied institution in her small town of Chinle, Arizona that was founded by her family.
Bahe says that she fights to honor her family and its boxing legacy, but her success in the ring is important to her community in Chinle, too. And life in this part of the Navajo Nation isn’t easy. As Michael Powell, a New York Times reporter who visited Chinle observed in 2017, “Poverty casts a long shadow, as do the ravages of booze and dope.” The gym offers a temporary refuge: “We keep our kids straight,” Bahe’s grandmother says. “No drugs or alcohol. They have to have good grades, or no boxing.”
Another writer, Hamilton Nolan of Splinter, noted, “Chinle is an hour-and-a-half’s drive from the nearest movie theater, Walmart, or non-chain restaurant. The landscape is stunning, but development is almost nonexistent.” And in some cases, the gym is a potential path to greatness on the world stage. The program has produced many great amateur athletes, but no one has made a substantial mark on the big leagues—yet. We spoke to Bahe about how she plans to change that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On opening doors for other young women
Some of my friends see me, the boxer, as being a different person than me, their friend. Girls in general ask me a lot of questions about boxing and yeah, it has definitely brought more of them into the gym. Compared to other sports, I think boxing is more complicated and more difficult. It’s a bigger challenge, and I tell other girls they can handle it. People are curious and we get all kinds in the gym. Everyone is welcome here.
On finding focus
The most important things in boxing are to stay focused, and to be confident and independent. In order to do what I do, you need to set your priorities and make choices about what you pay attention to and what you block out. I pay so much attention to boxing because it’s what I love.
"In a way it’s easier for me to fight when I’m the underdog compared to when I’m on top, but I just focus on staying at the top."
On dealing with bad days
When I’m having a hard day in training sometimes, I just talk to my mom or go running and clear my mind. And then I just get back to work. Right now I’m ranked first in my division, so I have a lot to lose. In a way it’s easier for me to fight when I’m the underdog compared to when I’m on top, but I just focus on staying at the top. That’s all I can do.
On representing her community
I know that people in the community are watching and depending on me, but I really just try and concentrate on my boxing. All my experience in the ring has definitely helped me get better with handling pressure. I just think about everything that led to this point. I say to myself, “I know I got this,” and remember all the hours of hard training.
On how her brothers make her stronger
Fighting with my brothers is good for me because they know how to get inside my head and make me mad. That’s always the hardest part—much harder than the difference in size and experience. It’s very frustrating for me, but that only makes me stronger.
On the power of perspective
My brothers and my dad really help me appreciate that the image I have of my competitors is just an image of them, and doesn’t say anything about how they really fight. [My opponents] might have the equipment and the money to do things I can’t do, but if they get everything they want and things are just handed to them, they might not have the confidence, independence, or discipline I have because I’ve had to work so hard.
On her Olympic dream
Making the Olympic team would mean everything to me. I’m so focused on that goal, and a lot of the practice and hard work is with the Olympics in mind. It’s always in my thoughts, motivating me. There’s a lot I want to do with my life. After the Olympics I want to go into the Air Force, and after that I want to go back to school, but I’m sure I’ll always return to boxing.
25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.
Correction: A previous headline for this article stated that Mariah Bahe was 15. She was 14 at the time of publication.