Mary Spencer's Olympic boxing tournament is one and done

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

LONDON -- Her match was over, her Olympics were over, and the first thing Mary Spencer wanted to do was find her mother. She figured her mother would be upset -- not with her, but for her.

"And so," Spencer said, her body still soaked in sweat, her hands still wrapped in tape and gauze, "I just want to let her know it's all right."

But it wasn't all right. Spencer bit her tongue and looked off into the distance.

Spencer has been a women's boxing pioneer, winning three world titles, five Pan-Am titles and eight Canadian titles. Now women's boxing is finally an Olympic sport, and she had been given a gift -- not only a wild-card spot in the tournament, after she had failed to qualify on her own, but a bye into the middleweight quarterfinals.

All she had to do was win her Olympic debut Monday, and she would have been guaranteed a medal, because the losers of both semis receive a bronze. And she lost. She lost to a woman she had beaten badly in the past, China's Li Jinzi, 17-14.

One and done.

                          [ Related: No one answer to explain why Mary Spencer lost first bout ]

Spencer walked through the maze of the mixed zone, a zigzagging fence separating athletes and reporters underneath the stands, and disappeared behind a wall to wait for her mother. This was the first thing she told her: "Canada didn't win a medal in boxing."

"I expected her to win, and I was very disappointed when she didn't," said her mother, Ruth Spencer. "I feel bad. I feel especially bad because I know it was such a disappointment for her."

Truth is, this was her third straight disappointment. In January, she scored a huge victory at the Canadian championships, beating one of her toughest opponents, Ariane Fortin, 18-12. But in April, in what was supposed to be a tune-up for the worlds, she was routed by American Claressa Shields, 27-14. And then in May, she dropped her opening match at the worlds, losing to Sweden's Anna Laurell, 18-11.

One and done.

That’s why she needed a wild card for London.

"We expected her to come back with a medal," her mother said. "There's never been a time when she hasn't come back home with a medal. So at the worlds, it was just mind-blowing to realize she had no medal. I think that has an impact on you, too. You feel like, 'Oh, boy. Can I make it this time?' "

Spencer said it was harder than she thought it would be to rebound after the Fortin match, which she called the biggest victory of her life. She couldn’t relax. She had to refocus in the lead-up to London.

                                                [ Photos: See Spencer's bout ]

"I guess it's the first time it's ever happened to me where I had to be my best and then six months later I had to be better than my best," Spencer said. "You know, I thought I could pull it off, I could manage it, I'd find a way to manage it, but it was difficult."

Spencer trained hard before the Olympics -- maybe too hard. She spent three weeks in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her mother said she was very tired because she didn't sleep much. She seemed worn down, physically and mentally.

Two nights ago, she had a great sleep -- nine hours. But was that because she was content or because she was exhausted? She said something highly unusual to her longtime coach, Charlie Stewart.

"She doesn't usually tell me that she's nervous or anything like that," Stewart said, "but she did tell me this time."

As Spencer walked to the ring Monday, she wore a black bandana and a blank stare. She saw something she had never seen before for one of her bouts, the stands filled with thousands of fans, cheering, waving flags.

She started well. She had Li on the run in the first round, pushing forward and slicing her gloves through the air, as Li retreated and retreated and retreated and smacked into the turnbuckle, snapping her head back. Spencer had a 3-2 lead.

But Spencer fell early in the second round, and Li caught her with a right to the face. Li took a 7-5 lead and wouldn't give it back. Li pulled in close. Spencer didn't jab to keep her at bay and couldn't score punches.

The third round was even, but Li led 10-8. Spencer put her hands on the ropes, hung her head and sat down. Stewart, who has a bad hip and struggles to walk, wasn't supposed to be able to climb into the ring. But he climbed in anyway and tried a pep talk.

"He said, 'Mary, you've got to let your hands go. You've got to go out there and you've got to throw, because you're still down two. You've got to give it all this round,' " Spencer said.

                                    [ Video: Mary Spencer loses her opening bout ]

Li gave her an opening in the final round. She received a warning for holding Spencer's head, a two-point deduction. Nobody knows what was on the judges’ scorecards at that moment, but in theory, the match was tied.

Spencer couldn't take advantage of the opportunity given her. Li leaned against her limply, not allowing her to land any punches, playing possum, then opened up a couple of late flurries. When the bell rang, Spencer hugged Li immediately. No medal. Mind-blowing. Again.

"Mary's got hands, speed," Stewart said. "In my opinion, she just didn't use that speed that she's got. … She fights better than that."

The irony here might be that Spencer waited so long for women's boxing to become an Olympic sport, by the time it finally happened, the rest of the world had caught up and the talent pool had deepened. She wasn't the only one upset Monday -- top-seeded Savannah Marshall of Great Britain, the reigning world champ, lost, too -- and Shields, all of 17, talked a little trash. Spencer and Shields might have had a rematch in the final.

"I wanted to fight Mary, but I think she lost," Shields said. "She had been calling me out, like she was saying, 'My main goal is to beat Claressa.' That was her main goal because I beat her. … She won't be meeting me."

But Spencer still has some fight left. She is only 27. "I think Mary's not a person that quits on things," Stewart said. "That's why she got to where she did. Because way back when, we only had guys to box with. She boxed with men. And so she took a few punches and never quit or gave up."

Spencer brushed off a question about the pressure others put on her. As significant as that pressure was – and her mother and coach said they think it might have been a factor -- she put plenty of pressure on herself, too.

"It's not like I had intentions of just coming here and giving it a shot and seeing what happened," Spencer said. "I came here, I wanted to win gold."

She leaves here the same way.

One and done, but not done forever.

"I love this, I love boxing, and I still want a gold medal," Spencer said. "So yeah, I'll stick to it."

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