It’s hiding beneath a thin coat of makeup, shadowy and blue as a fish underwater. From across the table of a busy noon-time Chili’s restaurant, it’s exposed for its close-up —ready or not, here we come — by a spot of raw daylight. Like a fish out of water, there it is: Triva Pino’s black eye.
The shiner looks a tad obscene resting above the delicate ridge of cheekbone and below the rounded swell of her right eye, which is big and brown, and decorated by an artful hand with fringes of mascara and liner. Though it may appear so, this two-day-old bruise isn’t the battle scar of a woman trampled by the wages of domestic violence. This badge of honor belongs to a boxer, not a man or a woman, but a boxer. Period.
“I won,” Pino says with a sweet grin and in a tiny voice barely audible above the chatter of the lunch crowd. “But she gave me a mean black eye.”
Pino may be just one more boxer with a helluva swing but, in spite of the shiner, she looks like just another pretty girl on her way to the salon for a French manicure. As one half of the very first pair of female boxers in the United States Navy, she’s a walking contradiction who’s no contradiction at all — unless the notion that there’s no strength in femininity holds any weight. Which it doesn’t.
“Most of them can’t believe it,” says the 27-year-old Pino, who stands at the average height of five-foot-five and weighs in at a slim, but toned, 141 pounds — describing the reactions of most men when they discover she’s a boxer. “The image of female boxers is of butch women,” she says matter-of-factly. “I say, ‘Type my first and last name into Google. It’s all there.’ ”
Pino orders something that resembles egg rolls, crispy and hot with deep-fried glory, a distinctive treat considering that she couldn’t and wouldn’t have touched anything so grossly, deliciously unhealthy in the past few months of intense training. Her fight — her single bout in the Armed Forces Boxing Championships — was staged Feb. 8, when a rowdy crowd chanted its support of the local champ in the Warfield Gymnasium at Naval Base Ventura County.
Sonia Deputee, the other half of the history-making duo, was scheduled to fight tonight, Feb. 10, but the bout was canceled because, of all things, Deputee has a cold sore — a mild ailment considered contagious enough to stop a good brawl in its tracks. “I feel bad for her because she would have beat that girl,” Pino says. “I know she would have.”
Pino knows Deputee would have owned the ring just like she did two nights ago, when, decked out in shorts and a tank of slick, yellow and blue fabric, she essentially kicked LaJoyce Grossett’s ass.
Grossett, a senior airman in the Air Force, couldn’t match Pino’s energy or speed. After a series of four two-minute rounds, Pino won by the judges’ decision. “My whole night of dreaming the night before was about the fight,” says Pino, in that whispery voice that belies the plain truth that she could drop me faster than a sack of potatoes. “I saw myself winning and celebrating with my family … I have two cousins who boxed when I was younger and I was always hanging out with all the guys and doing guy stuff — and now that I do it, my family loves it.”
Ah, Pino’s family. They’re obviously a subject that’s dear to her. Etched across her neck in the most permanent of inks is a tattoo that says “Raymond,” who is her father. Elsewhere, in some place covered by her track suit, is her mother’s name: Katherine.
Fifty-four-year-old Raymond Pino of Nevada — a miner who has mined just about everything that can be mined and is currently mining gold — sat ringside to watch his baby girl do her thing.
A slight, polite man with warm eyes, who looks younger than his years despite the hard labor, Pino’s got every second of Triva’s fight recorded for posterity on his video camera — including the moment when, after the bell rang, Grossett crossed the ring and, just as Triva turned from waving her champion fists at the crowd, landed a solid sucker punch to her face.
Maybe that’s where the shiner came from.
“The crowd was going for her,” Raymond Pino says, after the lunch at Chili’s, from outside the gym at the naval base, where he’ll join Triva tonight in watching two of her male teammates fight. “It’s what I expected from her. I expected her to win … She’s been a fighter all her life.”
Fighter or not, some just can’t understand why a girl like Pino would even want to box. “They say, ‘Why are you boxing? You’re so pretty,’ ” says her father, who has attended every one of her bouts. “She is beautiful. She’s my baby.”
Triva Pino could have opted out of the championship fight because there wasn’t a woman in her weight class. Instead, she strove to gain seven pounds so she could face off against Grossett. “It was either go up in weight or just win the tournament [by default],” she says. “I said, ‘Screw that. I’ll gain the weight.’ ”
Pino gained the weight, and she didn’t just win the match. She won the crowd. It’s hard to imagine this candy-voiced lady with the straight-straight teeth — the one who casts her eyes away like a fourth-grader about to recite her first book report in front of a pack of belligerent classmates — egging on a crowd of match-goers dotted by burly, military manly men with cups of beer in their hands. But she does, and the proof is right there on her father’s video camera.
“Most boxers, either male or female, are even-keeled, quiet, introverted people who do their thing when they get in the ring,” says George Sylva, boxing coach at NBVC, a Navy veteran and owner of Sylva’s Boxing Gym in Ventura. Sylva is also at the gym, prepping for the night’s fight, in which two of Pino’s male teammates, Adam Fusinato and Everett Montgomery, will box. Another teammate, Elias Gonzales, lost to an opponent from the Army two days ago — the night that Pino beat Grossett.
The reserved, almost shy Pino certainly fits Sylva’s description. But between those four rope walls, she’s a different woman. Her gloves circle the air. The crowd cheers her on. Her gloves circle all the more. The roar gets louder. Today, she bears the bruises of success.
“I can’t wear any tank tops for at least two weeks,” she says, pulling up one arm of her blue and yellow track suit and turning into a bona fide girly-girl before my very eyes. “I can’t wear half my wardrobe.”
Taking a hit
It’s a real trick to spot any vestige of girly-ness in the soft but unglamorous planes of Sonia Deputee’s face. It’s Feb. 6, a few short days before she’ll be eliminated from the championships because of that pesky cold sore — of which there is, as yet, no trace — and we’re talking over coffee and lemonade near the commissary on base.
But if there is no sign of utter girlishness in her face, which is sans makeup and topped with black hair cropped close to her neck, it’s because, in its place, there are traces of a regal, Native American warrior-princess.
Like Pino, she’s cloaked in shyness, but her seeming timidity is all laidback modesty, genuine friendliness and keen humor. “I’m not in it to hurt anyone,” Deputee, 25, says of boxing. “I do it because it’s a challenge and I like things that push me.”
She’s taller than Pino, and thinner, too. Though she fights in the 125-pound weight class, she’s muscular beneath that familiar blue and yellow track suit, which she wears like a uniform and a badge of honor. Her smile is disarmingly kind, and she speaks with an uncommon frankness. “You’ve got to be able to take a hit and it’s not easy,” she says of sparring.
Deputee, who’s Crow on her father’s side and Navajo on her mother’s, hails from Monument Valley, a picturesque Navajo reservation on the edges of Utah and Arizona, a corner of the world dotted with the kind of majestic mesas classic westerns are made of. “At night, it’s so peaceful,” she says. “You can see all the stars.”
Deputee plans to return to the reservation after her stint in the Navy, where she’d like to teach (probably physical education) and coach (probably basketball). “A lot of people only know the reservation and they don’t experience anything else,” says Deputee, who speaks fluent Navajo. “They think ‘I can’t go far. I can’t do this. I’m not college material.’ ” Deputee would like to change that.
That idyllic spot of the country — in natural bounty, if not opportunity — is what Deputee calls home, though she’s been just about everywhere. As a child, she lived briefly in foster care in Oregon before moving from place to place, including Alaska and Colorado, with various members of her family, including a dear aunt who calls her “Sunny,” for obvious reasons.
Finally, when she was in the sixth grade, she settled down with her mother, sister and two brothers on the reservation, where she was living when she graduated from high school in a class of 46 students. She was raised to ride horses, considered herself a “tomboy” and got into plenty of fights, even in high school. “I like trying different things and being adventurous, even if I get hurt,” she says, adding that she draws the line at skydiving and bungee jumping. It’s hard to imagine her picking a fight with anyone.
In high school, Deputee played basketball — which is how she broke her nose — and studied karate with her sister. She’s never been a great reader, so she had to study hard to keep her grades up to play basketball. “I grew up with a lot of stuff going on around me,” she says. “It’s hard to get through school when you have family issues.” But she made it, and even went on to earn an associates degree in physical education from Dixie State College in Utah.
It was when she took a break from college and worked for a while that she decided to join the Navy. “I was working and getting out of shape,” says Deputee, a utilitiesman, third class, who makes joining the Navy sound like joining a gym. “I was working in Salt Lake City at the time and I watched one of those ‘Accelerate Your Life’ commercials. Then I joined.”
Halfway around the world, she was messing around one day with a punching bag in a gym on base in Greece, where she was stationed for a full year, when she ran into a civilian firefighter who happened to be an ex-professional boxer. He gave her a few pointers. “He just comes up and says, ‘Make sure you hit it like this,’ ” Deputee says, gesturing at me from the table. “I decided I wanted to learn the skills of boxing a little better.”
Following her stint in Greece, during which she made several lifelong friends of the locals, mastered the art of authentic Greek dancing and learned much of the language, Deputee was stationed in Port Hueneme, where she met George Sylva at Seabee Days, a spring-time festival on base. Not long after, she was sent off to Guam.
She continues to read children’s books in Greek to get a better grasp on the language and has even taken the Greek “Liakatha” as her “boxing name.”
She returned to NBVC last October and started training intensively as a full-time boxer in December, though she set her eyes on the goal of becoming the Navy’s first female boxer while still in Guam.
“I was in Guam trying to motivate myself, saying I could be the first female boxer,” she says. “I told a couple people that I was going to try out for the Navy boxing team, and news spread really fast. They called me ‘Rocky’ or they’d say, ‘Hey, Boxer.’ I was just thinking I could be the first female — but I didn’t know Triva yet.”
You step in the ring and you’re a boxer
Unlike Deputee, Pino plans to make a career of the military.
She credits the Navy, which she joined in 1998, for helping her get her shit together. “It keeps you centered. Before I came in, I was just doing whatever — hanging out with my friends,” she says, hinting that — don’t let the soft nature and disciplined mind fool you — there’s more than a pinch of the partier in her.
She likes the travel and has seen more than her share of the world, including the likes of France, Italy, Spain, Ireland and Scotland, to name a few. Scotland remains her favorite country, the place where she spent $1,000 partying for a week, and “all I have to show for it is a T-shirt and a shot glass for my dad.”
Before she arrived in Port Hueneme, Pino was stationed in Hawaii on the USS Port Royal, in Pearl Harbor. “When I got to Hawaii, I needed something else to do,” she says. “I was just hanging out again, partying too much.” So she joined a gym, primarily to lose weight, and picked up boxing in the process.
Pino, an information systems technician, second class, now has three years of boxing experience under her belt, as well as a couple of trips to Golden Gloves tournaments in Chicago. Pino made the trips with her own money and on her own time, and didn’t become a Navy boxer until she arrived in Port Hueneme last summer. Like Deputee, she met Sylva at Seabee Days last spring.
Golden Gloves turned Pino, a native of Leadville, Colo., into a real boxer. The championship at NBVC was her sixth fight, but her first for the Navy and, so far, she’s 4-2. She firmly believes there’s no shame in losing a good fight. “I got a lot of really good props from that,” she says of a fight she lost to a very experienced boxer at Golden Gloves. “If you lose a good fight, you should feel pretty good.”
In Sylva, Pino found a real trainer. Her coach in Hawaii refused to take the “girl boxer” seriously. “I put up with a lot of crap over there and then I just said, ‘Forget it.’ ”
Pino placed a request with her command to be transferred to Port Hueneme so she could get serious about boxing. Since they made the team, she and Deputee focus on boxing full time — or will until they get deployed. Deputee will be deployed again in the coming months, but cannot divulge the location. “I get to pretty much be an athlete for the Navy and get paid,” Deputee says, grinning. “I’ll definitely train while I’m away.”
The women train with their three male teammates and spar against them, too. “I got dropped by one of the guys on my team,” Pino says. “They’ll naturally not fight you like they would a guy, but it’s better to fight them. It makes you ready for anything.”
“We do the same training,” Deputee says. “It’s not like you’re a girl and you can’t do this. You step in the ring and you’re a boxer.”
Pino, Deputee and their teammates will participate in a national boxing competition in Colorado Springs March 4-12, which means Deputee will finally get the chance to strut her stuff. If she and Pino perform well nationally, they’ll travel to Germany to compete in a world tournament. “It’s kind of a step above because they have more experience,” Pino says of the boxers the team will face in Colorado.
After her disqualification by cold sore — which has to be about one of the worst and most embarrassing means of disqualification ever — Deputee characteristically and unsurprisingly took the news in stride. She’s on hand the night of Feb. 10, hours after she received the bad news, to support her team and watch with Pino as Sylva helps the male boxers prepare. Her night in the spotlight has been stymied, but she’s one hell of a good sport about it. “She won’t get away from me that easily,” Deputee jokes of her would-have-been opponent, Emma Atolagbe of the Air Force. “I’ll catch her the next time around.”
Deputee’s had one fight, which she lost by one point, but had the chance to spar recently with the same opponent and won. “I beat her hands down,” she says, grinning. “I got her.”
As physical as it really, really is, Sylva insists that boxing is really a mental game. He’s a bit of an unorthodox coach who nixes weight lifting in training his charges — they train with their own body weight, which Sylva says makes them faster and more flexible — and employs meditation exercises for focus. “Oftentimes, the winner is the one who is mentally stronger,” he says. “It’s a chess game.”
Sylva should know: The former Navy cameraman has been boxing since the age of 9 and took a title in 2004, at the age of 42, at the amateur Ringside World Championship. Coaching Pino and Deputee, he says, is one of his biggest honors to date. “It goes beyond an honor,” he says. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
And as far as that whole lady-boxer-with-something-to-prove stigma goes, Deputee really couldn’t care less. What matters is that she and Pino are living history and that, as always, she’s doing what she wants. “If people did say those things, I never really did experience that,” she says. “I just say I do it because I want to.”