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Kayla Gomez is making the roof shake. The force of her gloved fists against a heavy punching bag, hung from a wood ceiling beam, kicks up dust that’s blown into the carport-turned-boxing gym after weeks of windy El Paso weather.
Gomez breathes through the dust, issuing a sharp exhale with each punch. Around her, cinder block walls draped with posters, medals and championship belts speak to the 18-year-old boxer’s considerable achievements in her sport. Here and there are a few of her mother’s medals too; Gomez isn’t sure where her grandmother keeps her trophies.
Three generations of female fighters live under this roof. There’s Gomez and her two boxing coaches: her mother and grandmother, Crystal and Cindy Aceves.
Cindy Aceves was a star high school athlete who as a kid engaged in regular sibling combat. When their mother was away at work, “sometimes my brother would be a bully and try to be the man of the house,” she said. “He would try to tell the girls what to do and I would always end up defending the girls.”
Now 58, Cindy Aceves didn’t begin formal combat sports until her 40s. After enrolling her three kids in martial arts, she decided she’d join them with kickboxing and karate classes. She put Crystal Aceves, her only daughter, in boxing at 15.
“I’ve always been very confident at defending myself,” Cindy Aceves said. “That’s why I wanted my daughter to be in that kind of sport. So that way, she was prepared for whatever came her way in life.”
Her daughter, Crystal Aceves, loved boxing right away; she’d been fighting a lot in school anyways, she recalled. “(My mom) figured that, maybe if I could act it out as a sport that I would stop getting in trouble.”
The discipline that boxing forced upon her helped keep her out of trouble until, a year later, she left sports behind for culinary school. For a decade, boxing was a thing of her past. She got a job, got married and had two children. Gomez was her first child, and Cindy Aceves’ first grandchild.
The day Gomez was born, Cindy Aceves said, “was the happiest day of my life. Me and her have always been really really close. She’s such a loving little girl. I adore that girl.”
When Gomez was 9, Cindy Aceves decided to change up the regular movie nights she shared with her granddaughter. Instead of their usual subject (true crime), she opted for a sports documentary.
“I remember it vividly,” Gomez said, especially the parts of the documentary where Marlen Esparza, a flyweight Houstonian, talked about her Olympic boxing dreams. “I told my grandma, ‘I really want to do that.’ The drive that she has — I want to fight for something like that, to be on the top of the world like that, to have that feeling.”
Her grandmother, Gomez recalled, was immediately game. “Yeah babe, let’s go tomorrow. I know a gym I used to take your mom to.”
“My mom used to do that?” Gomez asked.
“A long time ago,” her grandmother responded.
They went to the Carolina Recreation Center the next day.
Learning how to fight
It’s hard to watch your daughter get hit, Crystal Aceves said, recalling the first time that Gomez sparred. At 9, Gomez faced her first opponent, a boy.
“We never had the luxury of sparring with little girls,” Crystal Aceves, now 37, said. “In the beginning, there weren’t many girls in the sport.”
As a boxer herself, Crystal Aceves recognized the importance of the moment. It’s one thing to punch a bag, another to get punched yourself. And when you first start off, she said, “you pay your dues.” In other words, you get punched a lot.
“You cannot make anybody love boxing. Once you start sparring, and they start hitting you, kids will refuse, like, ‘No, I’m not doing it.’ That’s really where you distinguish between the people who like doing this and the people who don’t.”
After the first round, Gomez left the ring smiling. She asked her mom when she could do that again.
As her daughter’s interest in boxing grew, Crystal Aceves felt hers return. She began to train alongside Gomez. Soon, she was fighting amateur matches herself, always conscious that her daughter was watching. “I pushed it more than anything…. I wanted her to take away that your hard work will get you wherever you need to be.”
Crystal Aceves began to coach her daughter; Cindy Aceves started coaching them both.
Learning how to lose
The wins came easily for Gomez until 2019, when she moved up in her weight class and lost two fights nearly back-to-back.
The hardest blows came off the ring: on Facebook and Instagram, the 16-year-old saw boxers and coaches she’d thought of as friends post that she wasn’t even that good, that sponsors should drop her. “They were just saying things like, we shouldn’t be here.”
“Wow,” Gomez thought, “I’m kind of alone. I’m alone in this sport.”
The second of those losses occurred in December 2019. The USA Boxing National Championships, her chance for a speedy comeback, was canceled because of COVID-19. Gomez’s last fight was a loss, and there were no new ones in sight. “Is this how people are gonna remember me?” she worried.
For the first time, Crystal Aceves watched her daughter consider leaving the sport. Gomez had stopped working out. She’d stopped leaving her room.
“I’ve always told her she could leave boxing if she wanted. I just didn’t want it to be because of other people,” Crystal Aceves said.
Crystal and Cindy Aceves sat Gomez down. “She really needed to let out some emotions,” Crystal Aceves says. “(Boxing is) macho. You walk around saying, ‘I’m the best,’ and then this happens to you and you feel horrible.”
That night, they made a plan. All formal matches had been canceled, but informal fights still took place — “kind of like a fight club,” Crystal Aceves said.
Winning a gold medal
Little by little, Crystal Acevez built up a boxing gym in their carport, so that Gomez could train despite the pandemic. The three women took off around the country, joining dozens of sparring 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 got her chance at redemption at the rescheduled 2020 USA Boxing National Championships. In early December, Gomez won the female flyweight gold medal at the first-ever Junior Pan American games in Cali, Colombia.
Two days after Gomez’s return to El Paso, the three women again hit the road, driving to Shreveport, Louisiana, where Gomez would go on to win her first match but lose the final fight.
It was a disappointment. A tournament win would have meant a spot on USA Boxing’s Elite team, taking Gomez one step closer to her dream, fighting in the 2024 Olympics. In the meantime, there’s another part of the game she’s improved on: losses.
“It makes me hungrier because when you’re winning all the time, it leaves you consistent, but it doesn’t take you to the next level,” Gomez said, speaking a few days after the Shreveport tournament. “When you fail, sometimes it moves and motivates 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 it.”
And on Dec. 31, she got it all back: USA Boxing named Gomez 2021’s Youth Female Boxer of the Year.
Cover photo: Kayla Gomez displays her World Boxing Council amateur championship belt at her home gym in El Paso. Gomez, who is coached by her mother and grandmother, most recently won gold at the Junior Pan American Games and has her eye on the 2024 Olympics. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)