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NEW YORK, USA – Jennifer Dugwen Chieng gave up her six-figure job in Wall Street to chase her wildest fighting dream. It’s a dream she first had during her childhood years at the Federated States of Micronesia, an underdeveloped country made up of over 600 islands in the Western Pacific Ocean.
Chieng, a 33-year-old Filipino-Micronesian, recently defended her title in the lightweight women’s boxing of the 2019 Samoa Pacific Games.
After the victory, the Olympian announced on social media her plans to make it to the Tokyo 2020 edition – which surprised her followers, who thought she would focus on mixed martial arts.
When Chieng was 4, her Micronesian father and Filipino mother relocated the family from Maryland, USA to Yap, her father’s hometown in the archipelagic state. They wanted their daughter to grow up in the Pacific.
The cultural charm soon eclipsed Chieng’s complaint about the everlasting humidity when her dad and uncles took her on fishing escapades. In the annual Yap cultural festival, people came together at the beach from houses in town, scattered cottages in the borderless palm tree forest and fisherman houses on the shore.
The seniors sang folklores about how their ancestors survived on the island. Together with other Yapese girls, little Chieng would dance according to the rhythm in her colorful hibiscus skirt by following the rhythm of the folklores. Her grass-made tassels on the dress would whip through the air, with the azure Pacific Ocean in the backdrop.
Bruce Lee movies
In those culture gatherings, she looked no different than her fellow nationals. But when her friends were watching others play unorganized group sports like volleyball and basketball, Chieng gravitated towards solo fights.
Bruce Lee’s movies and old fight tape collections of her dad were far from enough to feed Chieng’s curiosity. Her father, a taekwondo athlete in college, was the only person she knew in Micronesia who practiced martial arts.
However, little Chieng didn’t learn much from her father. She would repeatedly appeal to him to demonstrate sidekicks or hand attacks, but he is wary of his daughter getting hurt in fighting.
When Chieng started attending high school at the age of 15 in Hawaii, her father refused to sign the safety waiver when she signed up for the wrestling varsity team. And she was nowhere close to fighting as she graduated from college in Upstate New York in 2008, then worked as a financial analyst in Wall Street.
Faidat Fahm, Chieng’s closest friend since college and current roommate, thought her childhood interest in fighting was soothed. But she was proved wrong when the two met in Brooklyn, New York for lunch in the early summer of 2009. She noticed Chieng was much leaner than she had been in their previous catch-ups.
“Oh dear, what’s going on?” Fahm thought Chieng was having a hard time in the bank.
“I am taking lessons at the Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn,” said Chieng. “I think I have a strong right hand so I just want to try boxing.”
Fahm seemed doubtful. “For exercise or really getting into it?”
Chieng was not sure at that point.
A few months later, she adopted a dog and named it “Pacquiao,” obviously after Filipino world boxing legend Manny Pacquiao.
“I think I want to get into it,” she told Fahm.
Chieng tried to make her training schedule work – she would wake up early morning and run the Manhattan Bridge together with her “Pacquiao.” After her financial day job, she would take the A or C train, head over to Gleason’s and spar or weight lift for two hours.
Heart to win
Chieng came to Italian boxing coach Andrea Galbiati, who cornered her at the 2019 Pacific Games in 2012. “A lot of boxers started fighting [aged] 7, 8 or 10. Jennifer started in her 20s,” said Galbiati. “She had another life outside the gym. But she has the heart to win.”
After he had leveled up her training from twice to 5 times a week in less than a month, he encouraged Chieng to compete in local fights. And Chieng didn’t let him down – she finished second in the 2013 New York Golden Gloves, won the USA Boxing Metropolitan Champion in 2014 and was crowned New York Golden Gloves Champion in 2015.
Her progress caught the attention of a boxing enthusiast from her homeland. She received an email from Erick Divinagracia, the president of the Federated States of Micronesia Boxing Association.
Divinagracia, a full-time lawyer, opened the country’s first boxing gym and founded the first Micronesian boxing association in Pohnpei, the largest and most developed island the nation, in 2014.
“He said ‘we’re a member of International Boxing Association’ I was like…really?” she recalled. In the email, Divinagracia invited her to represent Micronesia in women’s boxing in the 2015 Pacific Games in Papua New Guinea and, possibly, the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Right away, Chieng took the offer.
On July 17, 2015, a full-house Papua New Guinea boxing fans were rooting for the powerful local favorite in the finals of lightweight women’s boxing. Before the fight, most of the fans didn’t know anything about the Micronesian athlete.
In the final round of the match, however, the same crowd started to chant for Chieng, as she dodged her opponent’s long-range punches and threw a combination of hooks and uppercuts.
The match was called. Micronesia had a new hero.
Chieng not only won the fans in Papua New Guinea, but also bagged Micronesia’s first boxing gold medal at the Pacific Games and earned an invitation to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
In the Rio Games opening ceremony, Chieng, as the most accomplished athlete in the delegation, carried the island nation’s flag and stood side-by-side with Michael Phelps, the American flag bearer in the ceremony. Marching into the 90,000-people packed Maracana Stadium, she was wearing her signature animated smile and the Yapese grass skirt.
It was her initiative to put on that traditional dress, as Yap had nourished her and honored her as “the Daughter of Yap.”
But her Olympic performance in the ring was not her best. She was eliminated in the first round after a controversial decision by the judges, who were later removed from the Olympic boxing competition due to corruption allegations.
The setback had Chieng feeling down and she decided to start a career in the booming women’s mixed martial arts (MMA). She posted photos of her practicing Brazilian jiu-Jitsu on social media on a daily basis.
Last October at Madison Square Garden, Chieng knocked out her opponent in 82 seconds in her MMA pro debut. This March, to sharpen her knee strike and kicks, she even traveled more than 8,600 miles from New York to Thailand, the birthplace of muay thai.
But while in Thailand, she was still eyeing the 2019 Pacific Games and Olympic qualifiers.
Friends and fans had asked Chieng sporadically whether she was thinking of competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Even though her answer was always an absolute “no” following her failed attempt in the Rio Olympics, the question triggered her.
Facing a similar beach and ocean scenery in Thailand, she reached for her phone, found Divinagracia’s number and dialed.
Divinagracia picked up the call when he was thumbing through legal documents at his attorney office in Pohnpei. He was surprised to find the voice on the other side was Chieng because they had not been in touch for more than a year.
“I’ve been thinking about another Olympic run. I’ve missed it,” Chieng said.
“You are our Olympian. You have a right to compete if you want,” Divinagracia said. “That makes everyone here happy.”
In the meantime, more and more Micronesians girls are showing up in the gym run by the national boxing association. All of them have seen Chieng’s fights in the Pacific Games and the Olympics.
Now, they take free boxing lessons offered by the association in a boxing hall where Chieng’s photo is hanging up in the middle. Unintentionally, Chieng has influenced a whole new generation of female boxers.
One of the first things Chieng did after she had landed in New York on April 9, 2019 was telling her MMA coaches that April 16 would be her last MMA training session. She embraced boxing – her first crush in combat sports – once again.
On April 29, Chieng’s 33rd birthday, she showed up in coach Galbiati’s basement-turned-boxing room in the early morning.
“Happy birthday! 33!” Galbiati welcomed her back.
“Really? I thought I am 34 already,” Chieng chuckled. Her birthday gift for herself was a boxing session – her first in two years. She threw jabs and crosses at Galbiati’s punch while her feet were tiptoeing on the mat.
After sparring for an hour and a half, she sat beside a Micronesian national flag and listened to Galbiati, showing her signature animated smile now and then. Beads of sweat trickled down her face and dropped onto the ground. From time to time, she glimpsed at the national flag of the Federated States of Micronesia and a symbol of the Rio Olympics on the wall.
Micronesia has yet to have an Olympic medalist since the country’s first participation in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Qualifying in another Olympics and winning a medal has been Chieng’s goal since her decision to return to the sport.
Her recent victory is only the first step. Whether she makes it to Tokyo or not, one thing is for sure – more Micronesian kids will come to the gym and learn the ABCs of boxing.
Chieng considers living her late-life in the state of Yap. She has drawn out a blueprint of a Hobbit house – set up on a private island, enough for her family and her “Pacquiao” to sleep, with the majority of the home taken up by a boxing gym. She envisions teaching youngsters what she learned in and out of the ring in her fighting career.
Maybe someday, more girls will walk out of the Hobbit house with animated smiles and box for Micronesia on the world stage. – Rappler.com