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Diminutive Fort Carson sergeant punching her way toward Olympics

Sgt. Rianna Rios tapes up her hands before putting on her gloves to practice at Ft. Carson on Tuesday, January 9, 2018. Rios, who is part of the 52nd Brigade Engineer Battalion, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, won the USA National Boxing Championship in the Elite Female in the 125-pound lightweight division. Sgt. Rios has been boxing since the age of 10.

JERILEE BENNETT/THE GAZETTE (TNS)

By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 10, 2018

Sgt. Rianna Rios banged away with her M-4 rifle at a Fort Carson range Tuesday, punching holes in paper targets at 300 yards.

She shot well enough to meet Army standards. Not bad, considering that rifles wouldn't be Rios' first choice in deadly weapons, and paper is definitely not her favored target.

Rios, who stands not much over 5-feet and weighs a diminutive 125 pounds, prefers to use her left hand on targets made of human flesh. The pixie-like 23-year-old soldier in the 52nd Engineers is the nation's No. 1-ranked lightweight female boxer. And if her looks aren't deceiving enough, she prefers to wear a smile on her face as she pummels opponents in the ring.

"I'm always smiling," she said. "I don't go into the ring looking like I'm going to kill somebody."

Rios earned the lightweight crown last month in Salt Lake City, earning unanimous decisions in three straight bouts. As the national champion, she also earned the right to represent America in international boxing competition, a significant step on her path to Olympic dreams.

But it's a dream that Rios says will never trump her duty.

"I'm a soldier first and foremost," she said.

There's proof to back up that claim. Two weeks before fighting for the championship, Rios was in the swamps of Louisiana at the tail end of a grueling, monthlong training exercise.

Rios joined the Army to box, and spent her first years in the World Class Athlete Program, which allows troops to train full-time for Olympic sports. Last year, she decided to join a front-line unit, forcing her to fit boxing into a soldier's schedule.

"I though it was time to do something different," she said.

The Army, Rios said, teaches troops to adapt.

"I adapted and I overcame," she said.

Her boxing coach, Sgt. 1st Class Reyes Marquez, said he's has seen a change in Rios as a soldier and a fighter.

"She's having more fun just by being herself," he said.

In her earlier boxing career, Rios was up-and-down. She bounced between weight classes and tried to find a niche. Minor injuries plagued her.

Now, Rios is taking better care of her body and learning to enjoy adversity.

"If she's having fun, nobody can beat her," Marquez said.

What makes Rios so special in the ring is her mix of skills. Most fighters can be divided into those who move well or those who can deliver hammer blows - boxers or punchers. Rios is both.

"She can box and she can bang," Marquez said.

In a Fort Carson gymnasium, she showed the combination against a heavy bag. Her feet are as nimble as a ballerina, dancing while her hands flash. Then comes the artillery-like sound of her powerful left - bang indeed.

Now, Rios is fighting her way toward 2020 and the summer Olympics in Tokyo.

She's been close before, but missed her shot at battling for a medal in 2016. She won't give up the mission, though.

"I have been dreaming and working to become an Olympian since I was 13 years old," she said.

Her championship in Utah has only added to those dreams.

"It was great," Rios said. "I was better than I thought I was."

Like combat, she said, winning the championship was all about employing weapons.

"I just let my hands go," she said.

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©2018 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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