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Soldier keeps summer Olympic focus after COVID-19 cancels 2020 games

Staff Sgt. Naomi Graham throws a right to the chin of Briana Che during a USA nationals bout the first week of December in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo Credit: Maj. Nathaniel Garcia)

A soldier from Fayetteville, NC, who hoped to make it to the 2020 Summer Olympics this year is continuing her training and refocusing to meet her goal of making it to the Olympics.

The games that were to be held in Tokyo have been rescheduled for 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Staff Sgt. Naomi Graham is part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which is part of the U.S. Army’s Installation Management Command and allows top-ranked soldier-athletes to compete at the international and Olympic level while also serving their nation in the military.

She is a two-time National Middleweight Champion, 2019 Pan American Games silver medalist, and on Aug. 12, Team USA named her as a team boxing captain for the USA Boxing Team for next year’s Olympics.

Upon hearing that this summer’s Olympics would be rescheduled, Graham said she was initially disappointed.

The whole team has put in a lot of hard work, and was about a week out from going to the qualifier in Argentina when news came out that the Olympic qualifiers would not be hosted, she said.

Staff Sgt. Naomi Graham boxing in the final round of the women’s 75kg weight class of the 2019 U.S. Boxing Olympic Trials. (Photo by Brittany Nelson, U.S. Army/Released)

“So it was a huge disappointment at first, but I’ve become very good with turning things around for the positive and told myself this is more time for you to fix things, and there’s always things to work on,” Graham said. “I can’t stay on the negative too long. It’s the same goal but just take a little longer to reach that goal.”

Graham was raised in Fayetteville and is a 2007 Pine Forest High School graduate.

The youngest of six children, she went to her first boxing gym at the age of 9 with her sister who was allowed to box, but Graham was not.

“My mom felt like as the baby she didn’t want anyone hitting me or me hitting anyone but said I could go watch,” Graham said.

Watching her sister practice, Graham became hooked on the sport, which she said had an unexplainable draw that led her to start when she was 22.

“The sport has done a lot for me,” she said. “It has helped as far as with my meditation and to become resilient, that and the Army.”

With her mother also serving in the Army, Graham said it was also something she knew she wanted to be part of.

A few years after high school, a recruiter showed her a video of “blowing things up,” which sparked her interest in becoming an ammunition specialist.

“I wanted to join the Army because I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself,” Graham said. “I wanted to give back.”

She was attached to an aviation unit for about 1 1/2 years at Fort Carson, Colorado, when she noticed the World Class Athlete Program building at Fort Carson and asked about the program.

She joined the program in April 2015.

In 2018, she earned her first world medal — the bronze — at the AIBA World Championships in New Delhi, India.

Last year was her first time to compete at the Pan American games held in August 2019 in Lima, Peru.

She competed in the tournament for about five rounds before earning the silver medal for her weight class.

“I was a lot more comfortable than I thought I would be,” said Graham, who spends her downtime between matches meditating and visualizing herself in the ring. “I couldn’t believe I was accomplishing the things that I said I wanted to and representing the Army and Team USA. It’s just an overwhelming feeling I can’t really describe; and I appreciate every moment of every tournament that I’m allowed to go to. I continue to surprise myself, honestly.”

Staff Sgt. Naomi Graham was crowned the champion of the women’s 75kg weight class at the 2019 U.S. Boxing Olympic trials in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Dec. 17. (Photo by Brittany Nelson, U.S. Army/Released)

After winning the Boxing Olympic Trials on Dec. 17, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, she was preparing for the Olympic qualifiers that were supposed to be held in March in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Although the qualifiers to make it to the Olympic team was canceled, Graham said she and the WCAP team have adjusted schedules through the COVID-19 pandemic to continue training, while keeping the same goal in mind.

Training camps resumed in June.

And for Graham, who said it’s an exciting time to be part of women’s boxing and seeing women’s boxing breaking boundaries to become more televised as the main sport, she hopes to stand on the Olympic stage one day to represent Team USA, the Army and Fayetteville.

“The Army has definitely played a huge part in my life to be able to afford me this opportunity to have a meaningful career and enjoy the sport I love,” she said. “I’m just in a great position with life and loving it  and enjoying the ride.”


© 2020 The Fayetteville Observer