At first glance, Raquel Miller has more than a few things in common with a Hollywood heiress. She wears her hair in long, soft curls or braids and she carries a bedazzled hello kitty iPhone case that matches her neon pink Nikes.
Not exactly the stuff to scare you away. But if you knew Raquel in high school – any one of the high schools she attended – you might have thought twice about bumping into her.
“I went to Galileo, I went to MacAteer, I went to 1950, and then I ended up at Independence High School... I didn’t do that well around a lot of my peers and some of it was because of fighting,” Raquel remembers.
Raquel was mostly getting into street fights, schoolyard brawls, and as she got older, her friends didn’t miss a chance to remind her of all the times she started trouble.
When her friends would remind her of her past, Raquel says she was embarrassed. All the teasing eventually made her think:
“I don’t want to be known like this, I don’t want to be that girl…so I was like, you know what, I’m going to box. Because I wanted to be known for something better. It was a point to prove to myself that I was better than a street fighter.”
At first Raquel figured becoming a boxer would be easy. She found a coach and told him she was ready to jump in the ring.
But it turned out that becoming a boxer would take a lot of work – like running, weightlifting, and most of all, discipline.
“I didn’t want to train. I knew that I knew how to street fight and I figured that would translate to boxing. And the coach said no. Sparring was a privilege, and if I wasn’t willing to put in the work to earn the privilege of getting into the ring I wasn’t going to spar. So I said I quit.”
Over the next couple of years, Raquel couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d given up too quickly. So she tried again. This time she worked out daily, changed her diet, and even found a new coach. But after a while she realized he wasn’t really on her side.
“He didn’t believe that women belonged in the ring and he told me that I should be a ring card girl.”
“Ring card girls” are the women in hot pants that hold up cards announcing each round of boxing tournament.
“It took something out of me. I was like, ‘Guys don’t believe in women boxing, and usually the best coaches are males.’ So I was discouraged.”
Raquel thought this time she was quitting for good. But a few months later something made her reconsider. It happened when she was traveling in Brazil with a friend.
“She just said to me, ‘What is one thing that you’ve always wanted to do that you’ve never done?’ And I said that I always wanted to be a boxer. We made a promise to each other. This time, no matter what happens, I’m not stopping.”
Now, when most of us make promises to our friends, it’s generally for things like keeping a secret or showing up for a special occasion – things that fit comfortably in the realm of possibility.
But when Raquel made this pact back in 2010, she made a much bigger promise – one that teetered on crazy. With less than two years before the Olympics Games in London, the first ever to include women’s boxing, she promised her friend and herself that she would earn a spot on team USA.
That meant spending all her coming days in the ring.
One of Raquel’s current trainers is Jairo Escobar. They grew up a couple blocks away from each other in the Bayview. Now they meet several nights a week at World’s Gym on 16th and Mission to practice sparring and study techniques.
This time around, Raquel committed her life to boxing. According to Jairo, what she lacked in experience, she quickly made up for in work ethic and instinct.
“Somebody who never got into a street fight could come in here and be the greatest boxer of all time. Boxing is not just fighting, it’s not just brawling. It’s technique. It’s work. Sometimes you lose a fight just on stamina. Raquel doesn’t slack. And Everyday she’s getting better and better,” Jairo says.
No one’s had a better view of Raquel’s transformation than her sister Taneshia, who often stops by to watch Raquel train.
When Raquel started training again her car was broken down and Taneshia was her daily ride.
“I would come and stay in the car and fall asleep or whatever I had to do to give her a ride home when she was done with practicing,” recalls Taneshia.
Raquel remembers her sister’s dedication as well: “When no one believed...when I was really hungry...when I was tired and sweaty, she was the one who said, ‘Just keep on going. I believe. They don’t have to believe, I believe.’”
So Raquel kept going, kept believing. And what is amazing is how little time it took for Raquel to become a boxer – a really good boxer. In less than two years she started winning national tournaments and qualified for the world championships in Beijing – a precursor to the Olympics in London.
It was the first time Taneshia couldn’t be there to cheer Raquel on in person. So she woke up every morning at two o’clock to watch the fights on the Internet.
“It’s like seeing my kid in there, not just fighting, but pursuing her dream,” Taneshia says.
Raquel won a silver medal in China and was selected to go to the Olympic Games in London as part of the first US women’s boxing team. But this time it would only be as an alternate.
“I prayed endlessly to go to London. I would talk to God and say, ‘God please let me go to London, I want to go to London’. And, I was like, God gave me my wish. I kept saying, ‘God I want to go to London.’ I should have said, ‘God I want to go compete in London and be an Olympian!’”
This time, Raquel says, “I pray, ‘God I want to go compete in Rio and win a gold medal.” Raquel says while laughing.
To make it to Rio in 2016, Raquel is training multiple times a day – starting with a morning run. Raquel used to hit the treadmill. Now she prefers running in her own neighborhood.
“I would run by all these streets that I’ve grown up on. All these streets where I have all these memories, and people from the community would start honking at me and throwing me peace signs and ‘pump it up!’”
Many of the people cheering her on are the same peers she’d been in fights with. They told her that seeing her train inspires them to pursue their own goals.
“I just realized that boxing mended the broken bridges that we’d broken as we grew up fighting over things that we didn’t really understand. When these kids see me running up and down these streets and people see me shadow boxing they’re going to know that I come from where you come from. I’m no different than you are, and we can do anything we set our mind to.”
Raquel and her sister Teneshia are finding other ways to give back, too. They founded a non-profit for girls in the Bayview called Ladies in Power, which has provided workshops on everything from financial responsibility to cervical cancer awareness. They’re closed at the moment, but this coming year they hope to re-launch with after school programming.
But for now, Raquel’s main focus is the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
“I'm hungry to prove to myself that I can do what I set out to do. I want to be able to get me my own gold medal. Brazil is where it started, so Brazil is where it’s going to end.”
It’s a goal that Raquel is proud to say she’s going to fight for.
This story was produced as a part of the Sights and Sounds of Bayview project – a collaboration between the San Francisco Arts Commission and KALW to tell stories of people who live, work, and make change in the Bayview. Hear more stories like this one by clicking on the links below. And check back for multimedia versions of these stories, featuring original photography.