Boxer Quanitta Underwood’s Inspiring Fight Against Sexual Abuse — and for Olympic Gold

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Justin Edmonds / The New York Times / Redux

Quanitta Underwood at the World Class Athlete Program boxing gym in Fort Carson, Colo., on Jan. 11, 2012.

Most cases of sexual abuse remain hidden — the shame of the act borne tragically by the victim more often than by the perpetrator to whom it rightfully belongs. But Olympic boxing hopeful Quanitta (“Queen”) Underwood is fighting back.

In one of the most moving features I’ve read in recent memory, Underwood, 27, shared her story with the New York Times. She is a five-time national champion and a contender — perhaps America’s best chance for a medal — in the first year that women’s boxing will be included as an Olympic event. The Times’ Barry Bearak writes:

Monday brings Underwood to a crossroad in her dreams: the start of the United States Olympic boxing trials for women in Spokane, Wash. The three American 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 harder for her than a thousand hours of hitting the heavy bag. She has to talk about what happened.

I, for one, am rooting for Quanitta. She has bared her darkest family secrets in hopes of helping others. And, like most abuse survivors, she was violated not by a stranger lurking in a park nor by some faceless kidnapper, but by a family member — her father — who should have been protecting her.

MORE: How Childhood Trauma Affects Health, Obesity

We now know more than ever about how childhood trauma can increase the risk of mental illness, addictions and even physical disorders like heart disease and stroke. Our bodies’ stress systems aren’t designed to handle high levels of chronic stress, such as that of living with an abuser or worrying nightly about how to protect your sister from him, as Underwood was forced to do.

Under such a burden, the body basically borrows from its future to manage the current crisis. It keeps itself on high alert and also, in essence, burns itself out with consistently elevated stress hormones. This hyperactivated stress response is what raises the risks of future mental and physical problems.

But we also know that loving support from others can mitigate the harm — as can having a strong sense of purpose. Like Quanitta, and her older sister, Hazzauna, many children are resilient, though that doesn’t mean abuse doesn’t do great harm. Here’s hoping the Underwood sisters can inspire other survivors, both to speak out and to help protect the next generation.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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