"I never imagined that I'd be on this level representing the U.S. Army, representing Team USA," the 31-year-old tells PEOPLE

By Lindsay Kimble
September 11, 2020 12:55 PM
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Naomi Graham
MAJ Nathaniel Garcia, US Army

Staff Sgt. Naomi Graham never thought she'd be on the cusp of Olympic glory — albeit, a year behind schedule.

The Army active-duty soldier — who was recently named one of USA Boxing's team captains and will compete at the Tokyo Summer Games next year — tells PEOPLE, "I never would've imagined that I'd be on this level representing the U.S. Army, representing Team USA."

Graham, a North Carolina native, is a two-time national middleweight champion boxer, who won silver at the 2019 Pan American Games. The ammunition specialist is a part of the Army's World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), which allows soldier-athletes to compete internationally while serving their country.

Boxing wasn't always the plan for the now 31-year-old, who joined the Army in 2013 to follow in her mother's footsteps (she served for six years). She says, "I knew that I wanted to join and become a part of something bigger than myself."

Once enlisted, Graham learned about the WCAP simply by being stationed next to it on her base. And, once again, her childhood interest in boxing was piqued.

Naomi Graham
MAJ Nathaniel Garcia, US Army

"My mom allowed my sister to box, but she didn't want me to box because I was the youngest of six," she explains. "So she told me that I could go and I could watch, but I couldn't participate. So, through going to my sister's practices, I fell in love with the sport around the age of nine."

She continues, "So I told myself that I would always box when I first started going to her practices."

Cut to 2014, when someone who watched Graham training herself at the gym suggested she join WCAP. The first step was competing through the All-Army Sports Program against other soldiers. "From there, whoever wins that competition, they go to a national tournament and they place in the top six and they have the ability to be on the team," she explains.

She first fought at the national level with the WCAP in 2015 and was competing in the Olympic Trials by the end of that year.

Graham says WCAP gives full support to its athletes for anything from equipment to training and nutrition. The program, she tells PEOPLE, "gives you the opportunity to pursue and just focus on your sport which is the beauty of it. So I get to be a soldier and athlete at the same time."

Graham was training three times a day to prepare for the 2020 games before they were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, the Olympics will be held in Tokyo next July and August.

USA Boxing athletes were just a week from the Olympic qualifiers when the postponement news broke, obviously "disappointing," Graham tells PEOPLE.

Naomi Graham
MAJ Nathaniel Garcia, US Army

But, she says, "I've been training myself throughout the years to turn things into a positive. You're allowed to be human, but after a while you have to turn things around to positive. I just told myself, this is an opportunity to work on things."

Graham is just happy, in the interim, to be able to shine a spotlight on the sport she loves and is "passionate about."

"I am a female in a male-dominated sport," says the boxer. "But women are now breaking the same records as men. ... And women are even starting to be the main event and that wasn't happening at a point in time."

And her success has led to many pinch-me moments: "When you win a competition and you're standing there on the podium and they raise your flag and playing your anthem, it's a feeling that I can't describe. It's a very emotional feeling for me."

Graham knows the opportunity she's been given, and says "words can't express how she feels."

"I knew I had a passion for boxing. There was something about the sport that was pulling me, that I felt like I was supposed to be there."