Marlen Esparza’s CoverGirl smile lit up the room as she posed for pictures with family and friends and embraced her newest confidante, BALCO founder Victor Conte.

Esparza, a 110-pound boxer, was savoring every moment of what was a historic day for the once-mighty U.S. boxing team, which is now a mess. Esparza, though, became the first woman in U.S. boxing history to win an Olympic match and now is assured of winning a medal.

“I feel really good about it, but in the U.S. if it’s not a gold it’s not good enough,” Esparza said. “I’ll be happy whatever I get from this point. In my mind I am really dying for a gold medal.”

To advance to the gold-medal match, Esparza will have to defeat three-time world champion Cancan Ren of China. At the very least Esparza will take home bronze in the year women’s boxing made its Olympic debut.

The 23-year-old, who was national Golden Gloves champion at 17, will retire after the Olympics and pursue an education. Esparza was a high school valedictorian in her hometown of Houston and has capitalized on her achievements in the ring and her wholesome looks to score endorsement deals with Nike, Coca-Cola and CoverGirl.

“Marlen is a very gifted individual athlete,” Conte told the Daily News after Esparza defeated Venezuela’s Karlha Magliocco, 24-16, in the quarterfinals. “She has the ‘it’ factor. The first time I met her I was very impressed with her attitude. She has the D-W-I-T… do whatever it takes. No matter what it takes she believes in herself.”



Esparza began working with Conte in January and credits him with improving her training and fitness. Their relationship is unsettling to the IOC because of Conte’s notorious past with former Olympic champions.

Conte’s most famous Olympic client was Marion Jones, who won five gold medals in Sydney but had them all stripped by the IOC after Jones pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators and admitted that she had taken the undetectable designer steroid “the clear” from September 2000 to July 2001.

Conte is back at the Olympics for the first time since pleading guilty seven years ago to one count of conspiracy to distribute steroids and one count of laundering a portion of a check and spending four months in a federal prison. Since the BALCO scandal, Conte has been an outspoken advocate for more effective testing. And Esparza is two wins from giving Conte another Olympic champion.

“It’s a really enjoyable experience,” Conte told The News.

Esparza admitted being nervous entering the ring at ExCel Arena in East London because she had never fought in front of 10,000 people.

“I thought it would freak me out more than it did,” said Esparza, who proved to be the quicker and smarter fighter, counter-punching her way to the semifinals.