SAO PAULO (Reuters) - When 13-year-old Mariangela Pereira da Silva was accosted by a strange man near her home earlier this year she was frightened.
She felt she had to do something and a bar of chocolate helped her reach a decision. A local NGO was offering chocolate to anyone who wanted to try out boxing and Da Silva went along.
She loved it. She gained a new passion and a new moniker. If she ever makes it in the ring her friends joke her nickname will be “Twix”.
Da Silva is part of a fledgling boxing programme in Capao Redondo, a favela on Sao Paulo’s gritty south side.
The project has been helped by a surge of interest in the sport after the summer Olympics, where Brazil won three boxing medals, their biggest haul at a single Games.
“I imagine having a gold medal around my neck in that gigantic ring and my mum being proud of me and me being happy at winning,” Da Silva said of her boxing dreams.
The programme is run by an NGO called NAVE. NAVE was formed in 2014 to provide educational and cultural programmes, but indoor activities were halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sport continued outdoors and NAVE added boxing to its roster of activities in June this year, believing it teaches children how to channel their aggression.
“Letting them punch in a controlled environment like boxing is an escape valve for them,” Bruno Hereira dos Santos, NAVE’s founder and president, told Reuters. “They don’t have a lot of options so even the girls enjoy it."
Da Silva is the first to don gloves when the sparring begins alongside a dirt football pitch near the summit of the hillside community.
The young boxers train on mats laid between the wooden stakes that mark the ring posts. Rubble and rubbish lie in piles nearby.
Da Silva showed promise and was fast tracked to Sao Paulo’s Olympic Training and Research Centre.
Under the tutelage of coach Guilherme Miranda, she is learning fast and Miranda believes that even though she has yet to face an opponent she has the potential to go far.
“She’s a rough diamond,” he said.
Miranda and Dos Santos understand that champions are few and far between and stress the project’s main aims are to ensure the kids stay in school, keep them active, and teach them discipline.
The message has resonated with the disadvantaged children and Da Silva has become a trailblazer who revels in explaining the finer – and not so fine - points of boxing.
"I pulled a big tyre today,” she tells wide-eyed friends after one training session.
“It was a really big one, from a truck, I think. I ran up and down the stairs 10 times. And you know those big oval tracks you see on the Olympics? I ran round that.”
(Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Toby Davis)