Not all athletes are role models, and as Charles Barkley famously pointed out in a controversial 1993 Nike commercial, not all want to be.
Naomi Graham is one who does.
A staff sergeant in the United States Army who is about to represent her country as a groundbreaking Olympic boxer, the Fayetteville native doesn’t just accept her status as a positive example for others to follow.
She considers it her responsibility.
“As the first active-duty woman to box in the Olympics, I definitely look at myself as a role model,” she said. “This is what this was all for, to show other women, girls, children that no matter where you come from or what situations you find yourself in, you can be anything you want to be. You can come from nothing and be an Olympian or even an Olympic gold medalist.”
Graham’s journey to Tokyo didn’t exactly start from nothing. But it was close.
The youngest of six siblings in a military family, she found herself homeless for a time after graduating from Pine Forest High School, finding refuge wherever she could — including the floor of an abandoned house — before deciding to join the Army in 2013.
Her enlistment didn’t just provide her with a home and give her life purpose. It also fueled a passion that had been simmering inside her from an early age.
“At age 9, my sister took me to a boxing gym,” Graham said of her sister Rachel Clark, who fought professionally from 2008-11. “My mom wouldn’t allow me to box or train but said I could go and watch. I’ll never forget feeling like the boxing gym was where I belonged. I said I would box when I got older, and that stuck with me all those years.”
She got her opportunity when, after basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, she was stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, home of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program.
Her first fight was in 2014 at the age of 24. It didn’t take long for her career to take off.
A 5-foot-10 middleweight with a long reach, a powerful jab that has become her most effective punch and an even more powerful drive to succeed, Graham was accepted into the World Class Athlete Program after just three sanctioned fights. She earned an invitation to the 2016 Olympic Trials after just 10 bouts.
It was there that Graham ran into defending Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields, who didn’t just teach her a lesson in the ring but also what it took to become a champion between major competitions.
“After my first nationals when I placed third, I knew I had some thinking to do and if boxing was really what I wanted to do because at that competition is where I experienced my first loss,” she said. “I was down and hurt that I had lost. I was unsure if the sport was really for me.
“So I promised myself that I would listen to the coaches and train as hard as I could, and if I didn’t get any better then maybe the sport wasn’t for me. But I promised I would work as hard as possible before deciding something like that because I knew I was passionate about boxing.”
The extra work and attention to detail have paid off.
With Shields having turned professional following her second straight gold medal in Rio, Graham has become the top American amateur at 75 kilograms. She represented her country at the 2019 Pan-Am Games in Lima, Peru, winning a silver medal that was eventually upgraded to gold after Columbia’s Jessica Caicedo was disqualified for doping.
It was one of the last major tournaments before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sports world. Including the Olympics.
“I am beyond excited to finally be going to Tokyo after the year delay,” Graham said. “I looked at it as another year to get better and continue working on things. But to be finally living my dream is beyond believable. I still ask myself sometimes, ‘Are you really about to go to the Olympics like you said you would?’”
As for Graham’s chances of enhancing her status as a role model by bringing home a gold medal, USA Boxing coach Billy Walsh isn’t betting against her.
“Naomi really proves that with hard work, anything is possible,” Walsh said. “She’s had some setbacks and troubles in her life, and she overcame it and made things better. She made something of herself, and not just in boxing.”