HAVANA (AP) — Legnis Cala Massó carefully removes her necklace and smiles as her coach slides her bright red boxing gloves over her French tip nails.
The 31-year-old swings her wiry body into the ring and pounds her fellow boxer – also a young woman – with a series of punches, just as she’s done countless times before.
Today is a day she’s been waiting for since she started to box seven years ago.
Cuban officials announced Monday that women boxers would be able to compete officially after decades of restrictions, though they didn’t yet confirm if that would be taken to a professional level like it was with Cuban male boxers earlier this year.
Still, it sparked excitement in women like Cala Massó who have spent years fighting to be recognized.
“Saying that boxing is not for Cuban women – that’s always been the problem,” she said, leaning on the side of a blue boxing ring in downtown Havana. “Where we are now, we never thought we would get here.”
Cuba is known worldwide for boxing, home to many legendary male boxers – among them Félix Savón, Teófilo Stevenson and Julio César La Cruz – and owner of a dozens of Olympic medals in the sport.
But the island has also sparked controversy by not allowing women to compete, despite permitting them to do so in other contact sports like taekwondo and wrestling.
Perhaps most notably in 2009, the former head coach of Cuba’s men’s team Pedro Roque told a group of journalists that “Cuban women are there to show their beautiful faces, not to take punches.”
It was a sentiment Cala Massó and other women who have embraced the sport have rejected as they’ve sought to change the rules.
Cala Massó began boxing in Havana with just one other women, spending long hours training despite being turned away by many coaches and boxing rings. With time, interest in boxing among women has only grown.
On Monday morning, officials with Cuba’s National Institute for Sports, INDER, announced in a press conference that they would hold a competition of 42 women boxers in mid-December to choose 12 athletes for a women’s team.
The team, they said, will compete in the Central American and Caribbean Games in El Salvador, their first international debut. The competition will be a first step toward the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Women were first allowed to box in the Olympics in 2012.
Cala Massó, who now trains with five other women, hopes the decision means their community will only grow.
The announcement comes shortly after Cuban boxers made a comeback in May in Mexico, with male boxers competing professionally – and getting paid – for the first time since the communist government prohibited professional sports 60 years ago. It was a big change in a country where athletes, namely boxers and baseball players, regularly leave for paychecks elsewhere.
Down the line, once the team is built, those women could also potentially compete in a professional capacity, INDER officials said.
Meanwhile, they said Cuban women boxers will be able to train in state sports centers starting in January.
Emilia Rebecca Hernández, of INDER, said that the changes would make it so “Cuban women athletes can move up to the place where they belong – right next to men.”
Yet Hernández, who spoke only briefly, was the only woman on a panel of male officials who said their delay in allowing women to practice the sport was because they had to investigate “the risks that women could run.”
Women will wear additional padding, they said.
Yet for 22-year-old Giselle Bello Garcia, who boxed alongside Cala Massó after having only started boxing one year earlier for exercise, said the news offers them a chance to show what they’re made of.
“I have a new hope for life, because my life has changed. From now on, I’m going to focus solely on boxing,” she said. “I want my whole life, up until my death, to be connected to boxing.”
“I have to be the best,” she added.
Havana correspondent Andrea Rodríguez contributed to this report.