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Canada's Spencer prepares for her one shot at glory

Canadian boxer Mary Spencer (blue) and Mexican boxer Alma Nora Ibarra (red) compete at the Women's Elite Continental Championships in Cornwall, Ont. Wednesday, April 4/2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Commercials have been shot with Mary Spencer as the star. A steady stream of reporters and cameras have captured the boxer's arduous training, projecting she could become the first Canadian boxer since Lennox Lewis in 1988 to win Olympic gold.

But this week, the three-time world champion must first take care of a little business, grabbing what some may be surprised isn't already in hand. The 27-year-old fighter must venture to the women's world boxing championships in Qinhuangdao, China to earn her way into the London Olympics.

She has been preparing for this since she started boxing at age 17. It felt good to punch and win, even though some of her teachers said back then that boxing was just going to land her in fights at school. After 10 years and 10,000 training hours, a boxer peaks, the experts have told her. So this is her time.

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The Windsor Amateur Boxing Club is a humble, small cement-block building nestled among rows of modest houses, schools and aging playgrounds, a few minutes' drive from the Ambassador Bridge to Detroit. A sign out front of the club reads "HOME OF MARY SPENCER."

She enters the gym at 6 a.m. all business, scooping her long brown hair into a ponytail under a blue bandana and winding her hands in yellow wraps. The usually friendly young woman says nothing more than a stone-faced "hi." This isn't an interview or a photo shoot, where the new spokeswoman for Cover Girl is smiling, pretty and likeable. This is the gym, where Mary Spencer is starkly different – serious and intimidating with razor-sharp focus.

She jumps in as though there isn't a minute to waste as the Olympics race closer. The 6-foot, 165-pound boxer stands before a mirror in baggy black shorts and a faded grey T-shirt, fixated on her reflection during a long, fleet-footed jump-rope workout. She then fastens her hands into large elastic bands tied to the outside of the ring and fights their resistance in a flurry of jabs.

Spencer trains six days a week, starting when 70-year coach Charlie Stewart honks the horn in her driveway before the sun comes up. The day holds heavy-bag work and conditioning, long runs through neighbourhoods or around the University of Windsor track. Stewart is always there with a stop-watch, insisting she also do some calf-burning backward laps.

Bigger, stronger men show up to spar with Spencer – or as she calls it, "taking my beating" – as Stewart shouts out advice. He was a pro boxer himself in the 1970s and has led Canadian champions, men, that is, to the past three Olympic Games.

"People asked how I developed so quickly, but I have had the best coach in the country since I started boxing," said Spencer, who says she turns to Stewart for everything, from boxing to advice about cars and finances. "Since I had my first fight, he gave me attention because he saw potential and dedication. So how do you not develop quickly?"

Stewart has watched a parade of boxers – men and women – walk into his club to challenge Spencer over the years. The stories all sound alike.

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"This coach calls me and says 'I got this girl at my gym who's 6-foot, unbelievable and strong as hell,' so I say 'Yeah? Let's get them on then,'" Stewart chuckles. "So Mary fights her and it's over in 20 seconds, and the girl never wants to fight again."

Spencer, Stewart and his assistants echo the same words: the only thing harder than getting to the top – even for a world champ and Pan Am Games gold medalist who wins many lop-sided bouts – is staying on top.

"No one knew who Mary was when she was climbing this mountain, but now everyone in boxing around the world knows who she is, and they train specifically to face her," said assistant coach Cedric Benn, who puts on the pads to fine-tune Spencer. "Other coaches are seen videotaping Mary. It's going to be harder now that people are studying her."

Stewart is the world's top-ranked woman at 75 kilograms – one of three weight classes for women in their debut as an Olympic sport. Only the top eight finishers in each class at the worlds, which open Wednesday, will qualify for London. Canadians Mandy Bujold of Kitchener, Ont. (51 kg) and Sandra Bizier of Stoneham, Que. (60 kg) also aim to qualify.

"Imagine being the next person to come after Lennox Lewis, a name like that?" Spencer said. "But a lot people are looking at it like this will be a walk in the park. There are a lot of girls who are going to give me great fights. I haven't won gold yet."

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Sports reporter

Based in Toronto, Rachel Brady writes on a number of sports for The Globe and Mail, including football, tennis and women's hockey. More

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