Out of the nightmare comes a dream of gold
BOXING:She could be Katie Taylor’s strongest opponent at the London Olympics but Quanitta “Queen” Underwood has fought a much darker battle to get this far. BARRY BEARAKhears her story
THE TWO sisters shared a bed, and each night, with their hearts hammering, they would listen for the turn of the knob and the push of the door. Quanitta Underwood was 10, her sister Hazzauna, 12. The walls of the house were thin, and the girls could hear every move their father made. Hear him sit up, hear him get out of bed, hear him walking their way.
Quanitta pinched her eyes shut when her father entered the room, felt his weight sink into the bed while his hands travelled beneath the covers. As Quanitta feigned sleep, her father groped her sister and often rolled on top.
Azzad Underwood was a forceful man, not so much in size as in manner. He was a welder by trade but gave way to few men in self-importance. He could be charming. He had been president of the parents association at the girls’ school and was among the most active members at a local Church of God in Christ.
Both girls loved him and trusted him, but young as they were, they realised their father was doing something on the wrong side of normal, far from Jesus. The most important thing, Quanitta told herself, was never to let on she knew, for this was a secret surely meant to be hidden in the dark. So she lay motionless in the bed, breathing gently through a sleeping face. Sometimes, her father pushed her aside, and she drowsily flopped over.
Quanitta was only in the fourth grade, too young yet to imagine Azzad would inevitably do the same things to her.
CONTENDER AND VICTIM
This year, for the first time, women’s boxing is an Olympic event, and many regard the 27-year-old Quanitta Underwood as America’s best hope for a medal. She is a five-time national champion, a lickety-split puncher ranked fourth in the world in the lightweight division (123 to 132 pounds), one of the three weight classes to be contested in the London Olympics this summer.
This week brings Underwood to a crossroad in her dreams: the start of the US Olympic boxing trials for women in Spokane, Washington. The three US winners then go on to an international qualifying event in Qinhuangdao, China, in May. Eight fighters in each division will advance to the Olympics.
Underwood, of course, covets a gold medal and the fame that would come with it.“I want to take that ride,” she says.“I want to be a household name.” But beyond that, she wants to be a symbol of hope to anyone who has ever been sexually abused, though to do so requires something more difficult for her than a thousand hours of hitting the heavy bag. She has to talk about what happened.
Underwood, whose nickname is Queen, is a deeply private person. Yet last year, she initiated a website called Living Out the Dream. It is all at once a portal into her life story and an example of her deep reluctance to discuss it. She mentions “abuse and violation” and elliptically refers to“feeling helpless” as a 12-year-old.
In January, she was asked to relate the story in detail, and though she said yes, the agreeing proved far easier than the telling.
“This is like totally X-rated stuff,” she said apprehensively during the first of three long interviews. How will people judge me? She fretted continually. What will they think? Underwood had not spoken of these things even to her closest friends.
“If I don’t like something, I just hold it all in,” she said. Outside the ring, she shrinks from a fight. “If someone tries to hurt me, I’ll just take it,” she said.“I don’t want to have confrontations. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”
As she talked, she picked at her fingernails and cuticles, leaving tiny bits like crumbs on a table. She finally brushed them aside with a sweep of her hand.“God, I can’t believe I’m putting the story out there.”
As a young man, Azzad Underwood moved from Youngstown, Ohio, to Seattle, where he stayed with his brother and trained as a welder. An attractive teenage girl lived next door, and Azzad took amorous advantage. A baby girl, Hazzauna, was born in March 1982. At the time, Azzad was 21, and the child’s mother, Alonna Martin, was 14.
“Back then, Azzad wasn’t so bad to look at, but he was abusive and very, very manipulative,” said Alonna, whose surname is now Craddock. For some years, Azzad juggled the affections of two very young women, asking both to be patient as he indulged his indecision. He romanced one, then the other, then back again. In December 1983, with Alonna pregnant a second time, he married her, and Quanitta was born five months later.
But matrimony did not stop the way Azzad shuttled between the women, and at one point, he presented Alonna with divorce papers, which she imprudently signed and came to regret. When Azzad left for his other companion, he departed with the legal right to raise his daughters.
“I didn’t understand terms like contested or uncontested,” said Alonna, who is now a nurse in Las Cruces, New Mexico. “I had no older person to guide me. Just like that, I gave up custody of my girls.”
Azzad worked two jobs but was also a devoted parent, fond of picnics, basketball and family activities at his Pentecostal church. He worshipped devoutly and made friends easily. He was a strict disciplinarian. Good grades were demanded of his girls. Chores were to be completed without any back talk. Misbehaviour was punished with cords and belts and switches cut from trees in the yard.
“We’d have welts on our butts and scars and stuff,” Quanitta said.
Alonna remarried and had two other children. She rarely saw her daughters. But when the girls were still very young – perhaps 5 and 7 – someone alerted her to the beatings. One morning, she whisked them off the school bus. Quanitta and Hazzauna were overjoyed to suddenly be in the embrace of their real mom. She took them to her home.
But when the authorities were asked to investigate the beatings, Alonna said, the children refused to speak out against Azzad, so that was that. The girls were returned to the care of their father.
THE FAMILY PICTURE CHANGES
In October 1990, when Quanitta was 6 and Hazzauna 8, Azzad married Tamela Bowen, a woman he worked with at Alaskan Copper Works in Seattle. “What a responsible guy,“ she remembered thinking. Azzad was hard-working and a churchgoer, and he seemed a loving father to his daughters.
Back then, the Seattle Times ran a regular column called “Family Portrait”, and in December 1991, the Underwoods were featured. The family enjoyed ice skating and watching videos. Tamela described the first year of her marriage as “a dream with all the pieces going together”. Azzad showed off the couple’s new baby. “We even had a son to top it off,” he rejoiced.
But the contentment proved flimsy. Azzad and Tamela were laid off at the copper works, and though he soon caught on with Boeing, that job ended, too. Money was tight and the couple frequently bickered, Tamela said. In the summer of 1994, Azzad crowded the family into their Buick Skylark and drove east to visit relatives, first in Louisiana and then in Columbia, South Carolina. But the weeks turned into months, and Azzad showed no interest in returning home. He found a welding job and declared the family was staying put.
Around then, his behaviour seemed to change, Tamela said: more beer and cigarettes, less religion. He still doted on his daughters, however. Some nights, Tamela woke up and found him missing from the bed. She would peek into the hall and see Azzad in the girls’ room, kneeling on the floor.
Once, she mentioned this behaviour to a relative in Seattle. “‘Are you sure he’s not messing with them girls?’ ” Tamela recalled being asked. “And I said, ‘No way’.”
‘IT WAS RAPE’
The Underwoods lived in a lime green house on Great North Road. Three bedrooms one each for the boys, the girls and the grownups. Quanitta was 10, her sister 12. Azzad had begun groping Hazzauna months before in Seattle. Now, even as his daughters slept side by side, he was more aggressive yet.
“I remember the first time ever; he held me down,” Hazzauna said. “It was rape. There’s no other word for it. Every time after that, it seemed he purposely did it in the room with my sister, because he knew if I moved or screamed, she was right there and it would wake her up.”
But Quanitta heard everything. For a while, she feigned sleep. Then feigned becoming wakeful, fidgeting more and more until Azzad finally entered the bedroom only to fetch Hazzauna and leave. Tamela had begun working a night shift at McDonald’s. Azzad could be more brazen.
Fearing for her sister, Quanitta schemed. How can I stop this, she wondered. “When Hazzauna would get dragged out of the room, I’d get up, go to the bathroom, flush the toilet, make noise, knock on doors, ask where’s she’s at,” she said.
“He’d make her tell me, ‘Go to sleep. Everything’s okay’.” Sometimes, Quanitta said, her sister would return to the room weeping. But whatever happened during the night went unmentioned, confined to a fearsome silence.
Hazzauna’s shame was her deepest secret and yet she felt the defilement left her oddly transparent. “In class, you feel like you are being stared at, because you feel gross, like something is wrong with you,” she said.
Hazzauna has a family of her own now, and she too works as a nurse in Las Cruces. In college, she studied child abuse, the methodologies of molesters and the horrid frequency with which molestation occurs. And while she said she now found it “empowering” to talk of what happened, tears seeped from her eyes as she revisited the memories: Azzad was her demon and her father, a man callously conniving and yet strangely pitiable.
She recalled: “On multiple occasions, he would cry like a baby, saying, ‘I’m sorry. I want to stop but just give me an amount of time’.”
Her father bribed her with clothes and other gifts. He threw her an expensive birthday party at a skating rink. He persuaded her to take up modelling, escorting her to competitions where they shared a room in a hotel. As the years went by, Hazzauna longed for the life of a normal teenager, to spend more time with friends, to attend parties, to stay out late. Azzad extracted favours in return for his permission.“My father forced me to give him oral sex so that I could go out on a date to the movies,” she said.
He had other ways to make her submit: if Hazzauna denied him, he threatened to turn instead to Quanitta. This was the older girl’s greatest fear. So time and again, Hazzauna made Azzad promise to leave Quanitta alone. And repeatedly, he gave his word.
THE POLICE ARRIVE
Quanitta said she was in the seventh grade when Azzad began to molest her, always when neither his wife nor Hazzauna was at home.“I would lock my arms and squeeze my legs tight,” she said, describing efforts to constrain what her father could do.
Both sisters fantasised about escape. Hazzauna hoped to one day go to college in Washington. Quanitta had darker ideas. She thought about hurting Azzad – “using a knife or something” – then running away. What neither did was confide in the other. But that changed in January 1998.
The sisters were 13 and 15. Quanitta was terribly upset about something. Hazzauna already had suspicions. She finally asked the question.“Has he been touching you?” she said, and the scalding truth poured out. By then, the sisters were seldom in contact with their mother in Seattle. But they did have a number for the hospital where she worked.
The things Hazzauna told Alonna were dumfounding. “How long has he been doing this?” the girls’ mother recalled asking.“Forever,” Hazzauna answered.
The police arrived at the Underwood home within an hour. This time, the girls were willing to tell the truth. Azzad was at work, but Tamela was there. She remembered collapsing and bawling, her shock compounded by shame:“How could I have been so clueless?”
In the urgency of the moment, Tamela helped the girls pack, drove them to a hotel to spend the night and put them on a flight to Seattle the next day. She said,“The least I could do was get them on an airplane.”
PLEAS FROM PRISON
Azzad pleaded guilty to“criminal sexual conduct with a minor”. He was sentenced to seven years in prison and five years probation. The penalty could have been stiffer. The judge asked various people to speak in court. Hazzauna and Quanitta said they did not want their dad to go to jail.
Before the proceedings, Azzad had gone to Seattle to see the girls secretly. Quanitta recalled meeting him in a car in the parking lot of a Sears. He begged forgiveness. He said counselling could cleanse his desires. While in prison, he wrote apologetic letters to his daughters. God was back in his life, he proclaimed. He wanted absolution – and perhaps some money for candy and soda at the canteen.
Quanitta did not answer him. Hazzauna did.“Initially, I felt obligated to help him,” she said.“I felt bad for him. So a couple of times I sent him $100. Then I stopped.”
THE RING BECKONS
The girls were given counselling, but the psychic wounds were not so easy to cauterise. They were living with their mother, and “we pretty much acted like nothing had ever happened,” Quanitta said. The idea was for things to be normal.“But what does normal mean?” she wanted to know.
In high school, Quanitta was a so-so student but a superb athlete. She played basketball and was one of the best sprinters in the state. Several college coaches wanted to give her a scholarship, but she lapsed in and out of depression during her senior year and ignored the offers, she said.
After graduation, she felt adrift, without any aptitude for happiness. She was involved in a stormy relationship and thought about suicide, even making a half-hearted attempt by swallowing a dozen or so capsules of ibuprofen, enough to feel sick for days.
Her mother moved to California; Hazzauna was at college. Quanitta felt lonely and damaged. She enlisted in the Air Force but reneged on the commitment before entering boot camp. She fell in with a new crowd. She said,“Life was all about where we’d get weed, where we’d get a drink, what party we’d go to.”
Finally, an offhand remark changed her life. A friend mentioned a place in Seattle’s central district called Cappy’s Boxing Gym. There wasn’t much to it: an undersize ring, the usual ropes, bags and pulleys, the stink of sweat. But to a forlorn 19-year-old, it was an enticing corner of the world. She had power-lifted in high school. Boxing excited her. She liked the feel of her hands in the gloves.
Cappy Kotz, the owner, once boxed in Montana. He said he had never seen a better natural talent than Quanitta: the well-defined musculature, the economy of movement, the extraordinary speed. He thought he could turn a great athlete into a great fighter, but she was starting late and it would take time.
Quanitta boxed as Queen, a nickname given to her by a childhood friend. She lost her first bout and a good many after that: “I stopped counting at nine.”
In her first big tournament, the 2006 nationals, she was eliminated on day one, moving sluggishly in her bout, punching as if she were underwater. This was devastating. She pouted. And yet before the week ended, she was able to transform the disappointment into determination. She promised herself she would become a more precise puncher, to think more strategically. Kotz considered it a metamorphosis. He said, “She stepped out of her skin and became something new.”
AN UNSEEN OPPONENT
To earn a living, Quanitta had entered a five-year apprenticeship as a pipefitter, but even after lugging heavy metal tubes all day, she would put in her hours at the gym. She won her first national amateur title in 2007 and then added four more.
Kotz and Quanitta had a falling out last year; she wanted to switch to coaches more familiar with international competition. He is 56 and comes across like the crusty but wise trainer played by Burgess Meredith in Rocky. Kotz knew she was molested as a child, though not the details.
By his reckoning, she has post-traumatic stress like a war veteran, allowing certain smells and sounds to propel her into the past. In the ring, it meant she often allowed herself to be pushed around in a clinch.
“She has trouble with messy boxers, who push you and shove you,” he said. “To win, you have to dominate. She scores points because she is so fast, but she is not a slugger. Sometimes, you have to be down and dirty.”
His field is boxing, of course, not psychology. And Quanitta has proved herself a champion. But other savvy observers said much the same, that her inner strength had yet to match her physical gifts. She fights scared.
And yet there was one unforgettable bout in 2010 that seemed to foretell greatness.
In a semi-final at the world championships in Barbados, Queen was matched against Katie Taylor, considered by some to be the top amateur boxer in the world, male or female.
As expected, Taylor jumped out to a 10-2 lead with classic scoring combinations. But then Quanitta began to brawl, landing one haymaker to the head after another. Taylor became exhausted trying to defend herself and fell to the canvas with fatigue. Cannier than Quanitta, she recovered, scoring with jabs as the fight ended and barely winning, 18-16.
Basheer Abdullah, a past US coach in the Olympics, was in Quanitta’s corner that day. He said he remembered what he shouted at her in the seconds before she unleashed the barrage: “What are you afraid of?”
The Olympics are expected to catapult women’s boxing into the limelight.“I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked before,” Quanitta said. “To fail now, after what I’ve given up, I just don’t even want to think about it.”
The unburdening of her family history proved a burden in itself these last weeks. She asked that certain particulars be kept private, and they have been.“I don’t think I’ll read the story, not with the Olympic trials so close,” she said two weeks ago. “I can’t have distractions.”
Azzad visited Seattle two years ago, and Quanitta reluctantly agreed to see him for the first time in a decade. She had no interest in reconciliation. Actually, she was tired of his “whole remorse story”. “There’s no way to look at him and say he’s a good person.”
As she walked beside her father, she sized him up. He was much smaller than she remembered and nowhere near as fit as she was. The physical equation had changed, and a satisfying notion popped into her head. If she wanted to, she could flatten him, no problem.
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