FORT WORTH -- After waiting almost two hours in a registration line, Giselle Gomez removed her blue sneakers and stepped onto the ancient scale.
Above her a needle on the dial swung clockwise.
A medic recorded the 8-year-old's weight.
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Another listened to the steady thump- thump, thump- thump of her small, fearless heart.
Courage comes in all sizes. It dwells in varying degrees within each of the 272 boxers stepping into the brightly-lit ring at John Justin Arena this week and competing publicly, many for the first time, during the 75th annual Golden Gloves regional tournament.
Johnny Prince knows the nervous excitement they are feeling.
The 78-year-old tournament director has been involved in the amateur event -- the Star-Telegram brought the Golden Gloves to Fort Worth when FDR was president -- since he boxed as a young adult in the late 1950s.
Prince still can picture his first opponent, the first test of his mettle, a 6-foot-6-inch heavyweight with a considerable reach advantage.
When the bell sounded, the Arlington Heights grad bounded from his corner. Prince touched gloves with his left hand and, on impulse, simultaneously threw a roundhouse punch with his right.
The surprised opponent fell like Goliath.
"I felt so bad I said 'Oh, I'm sorry' and leaned down to help him up," Prince recalled.
His giant foe got up unassisted, murder in his eyes.
Prince can't say for sure whether he landed another punch as he went down in defeat.
'I want to fight'
The little girl began training in earnest four months ago for her first Golden Gloves bout.
"You sure you want to do this?" her coach Rachel Juarez asked.
"Yes!" Giselle replied. "I want to fight."
So, accompanied by her father, Pablo, the second-grader at Carroll Peak Elementary began jogging around the Riverside Recreation Center, home of the Fort Worth Boxing Club. Four nights a week and on Saturdays, she put on gloves and pounded the heavy bag with a fury.
She sparred in the ring, often against 9-year-old brother Marcos, known as "Pee Wee."
Giselle reminds her coach of her own daughter when she was Giselle's age. Vanessa Juarez competed 10 years in Golden Gloves and boxed professionally, winning all nine pro fights, two by knockout.
"Giselle's a tough little cookie," the coach said.
Esperanza Gomez, apologizing for her limited English, spoke proudly of her daughter's dedication and pluck.
"She no cries," the mom said, smiling.
But experience has taught the child's coach that training in a gym in the company of friends and family doesn't fully prepare young fighters for their first time on the big stage before ticket-buying spectators.
"It can be terrifying," Juarez said. "Some perform better than they ever have, because they don't want to be humiliated. I've had others freeze up in front of so many people. It's like, 'Oh, no, what am I doing here?'
"You never know what you'll get until the bell rings."
The main event
The pint-size gladiators gazed at each other from opposite corners, two angelic faces framed in padded headgear.
The ring announcer warmly introduced them.
Before the bell clanged, both coaches leaned down and, over the crowd noise, offered encouragement and advice.
"Punch fast! Punch hard!" Roberto Perez reminded 8-year-old Sierra Perez, a member of Premier Boxing Club. Then, with a reassuring smile, "You're the boss, right?"
The first-grader at Glen Park Elementary looked into her grandfather's loving eyes.
Across the blue canvas, Juarez repeated her instructions.
"Both hands. Both hands!" the coach said. "Just pretend that Pee Wee made you mad."
In the bantam novice division, contestants fight three rounds, 45 seconds each. Both girls came out swinging. Lefts. Rights. They flailed away in a crowd-pleasing flurry of inexhaustible energy. It was as if someone had lowered a beehive into the ring and whacked it like a piñata.
After the bout, referee David Fowler stood between the girls in the center of the ring.
The announcer read the judges' decision.
The ref raised Giselle's gloved hand.
The winner jumped for joy.
The other child, whose best wasn't quite enough, stoically left the stage. As the next fight began, Roberto Perez whispered in his granddaughter's ear and gave Sierra a hug she needed -- and deserved.
David Casstevens, 817-390-7436