Kayla Gomez shakes the roof. The force of his gloved fists against a heavy punching bag, suspended from a wooden ceiling beam, lifts dust that is blown into the carport turned boxing hall after windy weeks in El Paso.
Gomez breathes through the dust, emitting a strong exhale with each punch. Around her, concrete block walls draped with posters, medals and championship belts bear witness to the 18-year-old boxer’s considerable achievements in her sport. Here and there some of his mother’s medals; Gomez doesn’t know where his grandmother keeps her trophies.
Three generations of female combatants live under this roof. There’s Gomez and his two boxing coaches: his mother and grandmother, Crystal and Cindy Aceves.
Cindy Aceves was a star high school athlete who as a child regularly engaged in sibling fights. When their mother was away from work, “sometimes my brother was a bully and tried to be the man of the house,” she said. “He was trying to tell the girls what to do and I always ended up standing up for the girls.”
Now 58, Cindy Aceves didn’t start official combat sports until her forties. After enrolling her three children in martial arts, she decided to join them with kickboxing and karate lessons. She put Crystal Aceves, her only daughter, into boxing at age 15.
âI have always been very confident to defend myself,â said Cindy Aceves. âThat’s why I wanted my daughter to do this kind of sport. That way she was prepared for whatever would happen to her in life. “
His daughter, Crystal Aceves, immediately loved boxing; she had fought a lot in school anyway, she recalls. “(My mom) thought maybe if I could play it like a sport, I would stop getting in trouble.”
The discipline that boxing imposed on her helped her stay out of trouble until a year later, she gave up the sport for a cooking school. For a decade, boxing was a thing of his past. She found a job, got married and had two children. Gomez was her first child and Cindy Aceves’ first grandchild.
The day Gomez was born, said Cindy Aceves, âwas the happiest day of my life. Me and she have always been very, very close. She is such a loving little girl. I love this girl.
When Gomez was 9, Cindy Aceves decided to switch up the usual movie nights she shared with her granddaughter. Instead of their usual subject (the real crime), she opted for a sports documentary.
“I remember it very well,” Gomez said, particularly the parts of the documentary where Flyweight Houstonian Marlen Esparza spoke about her Olympic boxing dreams. âI said to my grandmother, ‘I really want to do this.’ The motivation she has – I want to fight for something like that, to be on top of the world like that, to have that feeling.
His grandmother, Gomez recalls, was immediately gone. “Yeah baby, let’s go tomorrow.” I know a gymnasium where I took your mother.
“My mother was doing that?” Gomez asked.
“A long time ago,” replied her grandmother.
They went to the Carolina Recreation Center the next day.
Learn to fight
It’s hard to see your daughter get hit, said Crystal Aceves, recalling the first time Gomez trained. At age 9, Gomez faced his first opponent, a boy.
âWe’ve never had the luxury of fighting with little girls,â said Crystal Aceves, now 37. âAt the beginning, there weren’t a lot of girls in the sport.
As a boxer herself, Crystal Aceves recognized the importance of the moment. It’s one thing to hit a bag, quite another to get hit yourself. And when you first start out, she said, âYou pay your dues. In other words, you get hit a lot.
âYou can’t make anyone love boxing. Once you start training and they start hitting you, kids will refuse, like, ‘No, I don’t.’ is really where you distinguish between people who like to do it and people who don’t.
After the first round, Gomez left the ring smiling. She asked her mother when she could do it again.
As her daughter’s interest in boxing grew, Crystal Aceves felt hers return. She started training alongside Gomez. Soon she was fighting herself in amateur matches, always aware that her daughter was watching her. âI pushed her more than anythingâ¦ I wanted her to understand that your hard work will get you where you need to be.
Crystal Aceves has started training her daughter; Cindy Aceves started training them both.
Learn to lose
Wins came easily for Gomez until 2019, when she progressed in her weight class and lost two fights almost in quick succession.
The hardest hits fell from the ring: On Facebook and Instagram, the 16-year-old saw boxers and trainers she considered friends post that she wasn’t even that good, as the sponsors should drop it. “They were just saying things like, we shouldn’t be here.”
âWow,â Gomez thought, âI’m a little lonely. I am alone in this sport.
The second of those losses occurred in December 2019. The US National Boxing Championships, his chance for an early comeback, have been called off due to COVID-19. Gomez’s last fight was a loss and there was no new one in sight. “Is this how people will remember me?” She worried.
For the first time, Crystal Aceves saw her daughter consider quitting the sport. Gomez had stopped training. She had stopped coming out of her room.
âI always told her she could quit boxing if she wanted to. I just didn’t want it to be because of other people, âsaid Crystal Aceves.
Crystal and Cindy Aceves seated Gomez. âShe really needed to let go of some emotions,â said Crystal Aceves. “(Boxing is) macho. You walk around saying, ‘I’m the best,’ then it happens to you and you feel horrible.”
That night they made a plan. All official matches had been called off, but informal fights were still taking place – “kind of like a fight club,” Crystal Aceves said.
To win a gold medal
Little by little, Crystal Acevez built a boxing gym in their carport, so Gomez could train despite the pandemic. The three women have taken off across the country, joining dozens of practice matches with fighters of different styles and weight classes. Crystal and Cindy Aceves wanted Gomez to learn to adapt, in and out of the ring.
A year later, in March 2021, Gomez finally had her chance to redeem herself at the rescheduled 2020 US National Boxing Championships. In early December, Gomez won the gold in the women’s flyweight at the very first Pan American Games. juniors in Cali, Colombia.
Two days after Gomez returned to El Paso, the three women hit the road again, traveling to Shreveport, Louisiana, where Gomez won his first match but lost the final bout.
It was a disappointment. A tournament victory would have meant a place on USA Boxing’s Elite squad, bringing Gomez one step closer to her dream of fighting in the 2024 Olympics. In the meantime, there is another part of the game that she has improved on. : the loss.
âIt makes me hungrier because when you win all the time it leaves you consistent, but it doesn’t take you to the next level,â Gomez said, speaking a few days after the Shreveport tournament. âWhen you fail, sometimes it leads you to bigger things. And I feel like the next time I fight I’m going to get it all back, and I’m happy for that.
And on December 31, she got it all back: USA Boxing named Gomez 2021’s Youth Female Boxer of the Year.
Cover photo: Kayla Gomez shows off her World Boxing Council amateur championship belt at her home gym in El Paso. Gomez, who is coached by her mother and grandmother, recently won gold at the Pan American Junior Games and is aiming for the 2024 Olympics. (Corrie Boudreaux / El Paso Matters)