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It is 5 a.m. and the streets of Windsor, Ont., are steaming.

They're hot with the summer scorcher that has blanketed Southern Ontario and hotter still with the roadwork of a would-be Olympic boxing champion.

Mary Spencer, 26, is unlike any other boxer Canada has sent into Olympic battle.

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The 2012 Summer Games in London will be the first time women have donned boxing gloves in an Olympic ring, but already Spencer is a three-time world champion, five-time Pan American Games champion, eight-time Canadian champion, and wants to be the first aboriginal - to say nothing of being the first woman - to bring home Olympic boxing gold to Canada.

"She's driven by what she wants to achieve," veteran coach Charlie Stewart said. "I've never seen anyone driven the way she is. She passes up dates and going out. I have to tell her to take time off."

At the same time, Stewart wants Spencer's ferocity as a 75-kilogram middleweight to precede her into the ring. She was a hard-hitter in her lighter days as a welterweight - where she won two of her world titles - and still hits hard. Spencer has an added weapon of speedy movement which she brought with her as she filled out her 5-foot-11 frame.

"I'm working on Mary to psych people out. I want her to scare opponents," he said. "Michael Spinks never fought again after he fought Mike Tyson [and was knocked out in the first round, stumbling through the ropes]

"That's what I want for her."

Spencer has an amateur record of 115 wins and nine losses since taking up the sport seriously in 2002. Her most recent loss, a close decision on points, was to Roseli Feitosa of Brazil in a Pan Am Games qualifier in March.

But she's learned from that, just as she learns when she steps into a ring with young men - sometimes 200-pound heavyweights - who occasionally give her a beating. She doesn't cry. She learns from it, and it doesn't happen twice. She adapts, changes her game constantly.

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"I want to compete because I love the sport, but there's a lot of other things that add inspiration," she said, taking a break from her dawn-to-dusk training.

Her father, Cliff, and mother, Ruth, had misgivings about letting their daughter box at first, but now are backers of their daughter's quest.

"There are native people out there who don't even know it's me on television, and they find I'm of Ojibwa background, they send me messages, and it's very inspirational for me. They say I make them proud, and it helps me when training gets hard and competing gets tough," Spencer said.

The thought of not winning the 2012 Olympic tournament never crosses her mind. She says she dreams of wearing the gold medal.

"I realize it's going to happen [losses en route to the Games]but I'm going to learn from them. But losing the important ones, the Olympic qualifiers, I don't see that happening. I see victory when I think of that," Spencer said.

"I got a silver losing a bout to a [past]world champion from Brazil at the Pan Am qualifier. It didn't deter me at all, didn't ruin my confidence at all. If there was a perfect time to lose that was it. If anything, it will make this easier for me in the next year and a half."

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There was a time when Spencer skipped school classes - "I even failed gym" - but she has become a dedicated athlete and person since devoting herself to boxing. She's a member of Motivate Canada's Gen7 program, which delivers positive messages to native youth.

Between being role model and carrying everyone's Olympic dream could lead to burnout.

"But I think we're very smart about what we're doing. I realize and Charlie realizes more is not always better. I train hard and at the end of the day I'm just wiped. I realize the importance of rest and I listen to my body a lot," Spencer said.

"I'm not just train, train, train. Because I understand my opponents are training hard, too, and you have to be smart about it. It's not because you train hard and go all out you're going to win. There's a lot more to it."

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About the Author
Sports reporter

James Christie written sports for the Globe on staff since 1974, covering almost all beats and interviewed the big names from Joe DiMaggio, to Muhammad Ali, to Jim Brown to Wayne Gretzky. Also covered the 10 worst years in Toronto Maple Leafs hockey history. More

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