Peter Hapak photographed the contenders for the women's U.S. Olympic team for March 12, 2012 issue of TIME. The gallery includes additional images of the fighters in action.
Boxing has always been an Olympic sport. The ancient Greeks wrapped their fists in leather strips in the 7th century B.C. In the modern Games, gold medals have launched the sport's greatest figures: Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Oscar De La Hoya all made their first appearance on the world stage with a victory in the Olympics.
This summer in London, the XXX Olympiad will present a historic debut. For the first time, female boxers will compete. It's been 19 years since a teenage girl named Dallas Malloy went to U.S. federal court to win the right for women to participate in amateur boxing. Now Americans are fighting their way toward the first U.S. Olympic women's boxing team. Just getting to London will be a tough fight. For these boxers, this Olympics is limited, a test run. Only 36 women in the world will be allowed to compete in three weight divisions: flyweight (112-lb. limit), lightweight (132 lb.) and middleweight (165 lb.). Meanwhile, some 250 men will box in 10 weight classes.
Men's Olympic bouts last for three 3-min. rounds. The women's bouts are four rounds of 2 min. each. Debate flared when the AIBA, the international organization governing amateur boxing, suggested women might be required to wear short skirts rather than trunks to make it easier to distinguish them from male boxers. After an uproar, the AIBA agreed that skirts will be optional.
The three women who won the U.S. Olympic boxing trials in February near Spokane, Wash.—each winning four bouts in the process—are fighting for a chance to make history.
MORE: The New Olympic Ring
Katherine Dunn is an award-winning Oregon-based writer and author of Geek Love. She won the Dorothea Lange—Paul Taylor Award in 2004 for her work on School of Hard Knocks: The Struggle for Survival in America’s Toughest Boxing Gyms.