ROME Corporal Romina Marenda of the Italian army never expects to go into combat, apart from meeting another woman in the ring.
Lightweight Marenda will be one of Italy's biggest hopes when women's boxing makes its debut at the London Olympics this year, as long as she manages to qualify at the world championships in China in May.
"That's the big dream," she told Reuters as she worked out intensively with six other Italian women boxers, including team captain Valeria Calabrese at an army sports centre on the edge of Rome. Calabrese, probably Italy's best medal prospect, is not in the army but uses its facilities.
Marenda, 27, started boxing originally as a way to lose weight when she was working in an art museum in her home town of Vicenza in northern Italy.
But the way she trains with a frown of concentration in the winter sunshine on the track and then works up a sweat sparring and snapping punches into bags in the gym reveals how passionate she is about her sport and getting to the Olympics.
"My life really changed after this choice," she said, describing how she started boxing full time after joining the army in 2009, and emphasizing she is in the services only because of the sport.
Asked if she expected to go to war, she replied with a laugh, "I hope not! I hope they call the others first."
"I am not a real soldier. I am in the military but I am a military boxer," said Marenda, who entered the army on a special intake for athletes. "My only job is to be a boxer."
Marenda, who at 1.70 meters is taller than the other Italian boxers but a lot shorter than some of her bulky international opponents, speaks good English, helped by the presence of American neighbors in Vicenza from the nearby U.S. air base.
She rejects the notion that boxing is unfeminine.
"I don't think there are sports for boys or sports for girls...like I don't think there is a dance for a boy or a dance for a girl. We are just athletes. We are just boxers or just dancers. If you like to do something and if you can do it, it means it is not just for boys or just for girls."
"BOXER WITH THAT FACE?"
Calabrese, 29, the team's wisecracking captain, agrees, seeing boxing as just another sport. Asked if her friends see her as unfeminine, the diminutive flyweight declares: "No. Not at all. They are used to it.
"Perhaps when people first meet you, they say 'How could you be a boxer with that face?' But with people you know it is no longer a novelty or a surprising thing. It is normal."
Both boxers reflect a striking difference between the women boxers and the stereotypical man fighting his way out of economic hardship. They are older than their male counterparts -most of the team are in their late 20s - have university degrees and are articulate about their sport.
"I come from a normal family. But there are other realities. There are so many places where boxing is a salvation for so many young boys. In certain districts it really saves many boys," said Calabrese, who is Sicilian.
In parts of southern Italy, boxing is one of the few ways for boys to break out of a cycle of drugs and being drawn into the mafia. Most of Italy's boxers come from the deprived south.
"Most of us girls are normal. We come from tranquil, well-to-do families. For the boys it is a bit different. Many boys see their only hope in boxing," said Calabrese. "Girls get into this sport for other reasons".
But Marenda said they had something in common with the boys.
"I had a happy childhood and came from a simple family. But the thing we have in common is the idea of sacrifice, that nobody gives you anything for free."
Marenda and Calabrese firmly reject the idea that you have to be aggressive or tough to get into the ring.
"Tough? Not at all. Those who are aggressive and try to use just force are at the biggest disadvantage," said Calabrese.
"Maybe at a low level people can get taken by surprise by their aggression. But at higher levels if they throw themselves forward to land blows they take punches."
Marenda said you couldn't get angry if you got hurt in the ring, "That is very hard but you must be cool and say 'Okay, she is good but I want to be better'. That's what I do, I don't give up until I hear the final bell."
Calabrese shows the same competitiveness. "I like to face up to an opponent, see who is best."
Marenda, in particular, will have to work hard, and as she says herself, have a good bit of luck to do well in London.
She was runner-up in the Italian championships to Marzia Davide, a highly-regarded fighter. But sporting authorities controversially chose Marenda as their candidate in the lightweight category because Davide refused to join their Olympic training camp last year.
Marenda says there is no bad blood. "But you cannot train for the Olympics at home...You have to give something up. I would like to be at home too. Everybody makes their choices. Nobody gives you something for nothing."
She won a bronze medal at an Olympic test event in London last November but was eliminated in the first round in an important warm-up tournament in Bulgaria last month.
Calabrese looks to have a better chance of a medal in London, having lost in the 51 kg final in Bulgaria to England's Nicola Adams, who she says must be the favorite on home turf.
Marenda also says the lightweight division will be the most competitive at the Olympics because only three classes will be allowed in a short boxing programme - flyweight, lightweight and middleweight with bunching of fighters in the middle category as fighters bulk up or move down to qualify.
"You need a good bit of luck. You need to get a good draw, Marenda said, adding that multiple World and European champion Katie Taylor of Ireland is the standout favorite in London.
But she is certainly ready to go for it. "My parents always taught me since I was little that you have to earn what you get. If you don't suffer a little bit, then maybe you won't have the pleasure of having something.
(Editing by John Mehaffey)