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Blanchette: Crews, 23 others aiming for Olympics berth

Franchon Crews, top row in sunglasses, lined up with fellow boxers for a group shot after the draw at Northern Quest Resort on Sunday. (Kathy Plonka)
Franchon Crews, top row in sunglasses, lined up with fellow boxers for a group shot after the draw at Northern Quest Resort on Sunday. (Kathy Plonka)

At the orientation meeting Sunday for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Women’s Boxing, the participants were first asked if there were any questions.

“Can we get a free meal?” came a shout from row 5.

Introducing Franchon Crews. Direct. Up front. Out there.

“I’m the Heavy Hitting Diva,” she said.

And how does that diva business play in the gritty world of amateur boxing?

“They love it,” she insisted. “They eat it up and swallow it. I’m just me. And if you don’t like it, that’s your problem.”

Truth is, you probably do have a problem if you can’t be charmed by Franchon Crews and her outsized personality, showy bearing and welcoming smile – unless, of course, you’re on the receiving end of a straight right hand delivered with rancor.

There are 24 eager aspirants here for the weeklong trials at Northern Quest Casino, each with a compelling story and a dream. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that the theatrics seem to swell whenever Crews, a 24-year-old middleweight from Baltimore and a five-time national champion, becomes involved.

Take Sunday’s draw for example.

The top qualifiers for the trials have been assigned seeds – Crews is No. 1 in her division – and it was left for the unseeded participants to blindly pick their poison. Claressa Shields – just 16 years old but the out-of-nowhere flavor of the month for an appealing physical style and newbie innocence – stepped up to pluck a pingpong ball from a can. She took the blind-draw directive literally, covering her eyes with her free hand.

Almost inevitably, she drew the No. 1 ball. So the two of them strode quickly into a noses-touching staredown – Shields barely able to keep a straight face, Crews baleful, mock or otherwise.

So the match insiders anticipated – possibly on Saturday night for the chance to take the next stop to the London Olympics – happens tonight instead.

Drama. It just follows Crews around. Or she nudges it along.

USA Boxing officials enjoy recalling Crews at last fall’s Pan American Games in Guadalajara. During idle moments, the fans in Mexico would taunt someone in the audience – often a boxer – to stand up and dance. Crews didn’t need much urging to put on a show, only to slip and cut her hand on some metal.

The tale she blogged later for the USA Boxing website included such elements as machine guns, her life flashing before her eyes, sound effects (“BLAMM!”), clouds opening, FBI agents and a team official yelling “NOOOOO!!!!” before a doctor stuck Crews with a needle – all under the heading “My Near Death Experience.”

During which she took one stitch.

The lady has flair – starting with how she jumped into the ring to begin with.

“I never saw myself boxing,” she admitted. “I just wanted to lose weight.”

She was 205 pounds with ambitions to be a singer, and a voice good enough to get her an “American Idol” audition which was aired on TV, though her rendition of “A Woman’s Worth” didn’t advance her past that stage.

“I was expecting them to be more harsh,” Crews said. “Simon (Cowell) just told me” – and at this point she slips into an uncanny impersonation – “ ‘Well, you’re a boxer. You can’t be good at everything.’ I went on camera and said, ‘I can and I will be and if I’m not the American Idol, I’ll be middleweight champion of the world.’ ”

It was barely a year later that she won her first national title, and suddenly the decision was made for her.

“I just saw all the possibilities,” she said. “I never thought about traveling the world and seeing places we look at it in magazines and school books. Never dreamt about being a pioneer and having little girls – and boys and adults – look up to me.

“Bottom line, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

For all her success in the ring, Crews’ road has had its share of potholes.

In 2009, she tested positive for a banned substance and took a forced 18-month hiatus from the sport – only to find the motivation to come back with the International Olympic Committee added women’s boxing to the London program that same year.

Her training is wedged in between working two jobs – at a Holiday Inn and a Cheesecake Factory – and taking care of her mother, Sarah, who suffers from chronic kidney disease and diabetes.

It was her mother who worried, “What about your face?” when Crews told her about her boxing ambitions.

“Hey, I love makeup, I love clothes, I love hair,” she said. “I guess that’s the diva part. But when I’m in the ring, I’m a heavy hitter. I don’t play.”

Which should make her opening round bout with Shields a dandy.

“Everyone expects her to beat me because she’s new and good, but I don’t care,” Crews said. “Everybody’s looking for the next big thing. But I’m here to say I’m just evolving. I ain’t done yet.”

With the Olympics dead ahead, she might be just beginning.