At age 19, in 2005, Yenebier Guillén decided to trade her softball gloves for boxing gloves. Many people did not agree. “You’re crazy! Boxing is a sport for men,” she was told. “They’ll break your nose. Get over it!,” they said.
All her critics were silenced when Yenebier returned from the Pan American Games with a silver medal around her neck.
A native of Los Mameyes in Eastern Santo Domingo, Guillén had boxing in her blood. Her grandfather and father, both named Juan, were amateur boxers. To top it off, her mother, Grecia Benítez, was an amateur track and field competitor in the 400m dash.
With this family background, she received support at home for her sports career from day one. It all started one day, when after softball practice at a field near the Navy base, she went to watch boxers training to compete in that year’s military games. After visiting several times, Coach Marino Minaya invited her to practice. Minaya had his reasons. “I had seen her playing softball, throwing hard… I saw there was a lot of strength in that arm, and that could be transformed into good punches,” he explained.
“WE ALL HAVE WHAT WE NEED TO BE CHAMPIONS, NOT ONLY IN SPORT BUT IN LIFE.”
The workouts were intense, training two hours a day. But it is important to recognize something else, female boxing did not debut in the continental circuits until the Guadalajara 2011 Pan American Games, and only became an Olympic category in London 2012. What was Yenebier looking for in a sport that basically offered her no expectations?
“I wanted to be like Laila Ali,” she said, recalling watching videos with her dad of the legendary heavyweight and Muhammad Ali’s daughter. If the American was able to do it, Yenebier felt she could too.
In 2008, she participated in two Central American and Pan American tournaments, and won the gold medal in both. Those performances earned her recognition as female boxer of the year, an award granted by the Dominican Republic boxing reporters.
Three years later she qualified for the Guadalajara 2011 Pan American Games, where she decisively defeated the former world champion, Brazilian Roseli Feitosa, with a 21-12 score in the semifinal round. In the gold medal match, she was defeated 15-11 by Canadian Mary Spencer, settling for the Pan American Silver. “That is one of the medals I have enjoyed most in my career, because I showed the world that it was possible,” said the boxer. “I told everyone who had doubted me that it was possible, and I did it big time.” For this performance, the Dominican Olympic Committee selected her as Athlete of the Year in Boxing.
After being eliminated in the qualifying events Guillén did not make it to London 2012. “Things did not work out as expected. I think I could have made the cut, but the judges saw it differently in their scores,” the female athlete reflects today. But that did not stop the muscular athlete, who seems to effortlessly combine strong straight punches and annihilating jabs in her fights. In 2013, these skills led her to the top of the 75kg category in the Bolivarian Games, hosted in the Peruvian city of Trujillo. In 2014, she brought home the gold from the Central American and Caribbean Games in Veracruz.
“When everyone saw the results of my winning streak, nobody objected my boxing any more. They all wanted to see me in the ring!,” she proudly says.
She reached the finals in the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games, and was defeated by American Claressa Shields by unanimous decision, winning a Pan American Silver. She did not qualify for Rio 2016, after losing her chance in the Argentina pre-Olympics and being affected by a nasal congestion during the World Women’s Boxing tournament held in Kazakhstan.
However, her mind remains focused on throwing jabs at challenges. Since she does not know if she will remain an amateur boxer for the Tokyo 2020 cycle, she plans to follow in Laila Ali’s footsteps and become a professional boxer. “I would like to be world champion, teach women that things can be done, and that we all have what we need to be champions, not only in sports but in life.”
Meanwhile, she is focused on completing her degree in Physical Education at the Evangelical University, and in continuing to prove that it can be done. “When I want something, I go for it; no matter what obstacles will need to be knocked down.”