Marlen Esparza admits she would have laughed if told two years ago that she'd eventually be "standing in front of a room full of potential."
But then in summer 2012, Esparza made history by becoming the first United States female boxer to win a round at the London Olympics and the first to medal with a bronze.
"I was not supposed to win," Esparza recalls, wearing her medal as she spoke at Sunday's Hispanic Academic Achievers Program in Pasco. "I actually am not athletic, I just try really hard."
Now, the first Latina boxer, who's studying to be an anesthesiologist wants to communicate to today's youth to fight for the things they want, because everything seems impossible until it's done.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
No matter what you choose to do, there will be doubters and problems along the way and some people may laugh at you, and that's OK, she said.
"You can be the most beautiful, fresh-smelling flower on this Earth, and there's always going to be a person who doesn't like flowers," Esparza said.
As keynote speaker to almost 4,500 students and their family members, her simple message was to know yourself, know what you want, believe in your life and value your own opinion.
"I don't live my life to impress people; I live my life to be happy. And that's what you need to do too," said Esparza, who's been boxing for about 13 years.
HAAP's 24th annual awards and scholarships ceremony was held at TRAC.
The program, which was started in 1990, recognizes fourth- through 12th-grade Hispanic students who earn a 3.0 grade-point average or better through the current academic year.
On Sunday evening, 26 scholarships totaling $66,500 were given to Mid-Columbia seniors to pursue higher education. And a record 4,443 students were recognized with certificates.
"This is amazing to have this many students having this kind of success. ... And it's inspiring," said Albert Torres, master of ceremonies.
The top winner was Tobias Jimenez, an 18-year-old Pasco High senior who will use his $10,000 scholarship to get a double major in architecture and civil engineering at Washington State University.
Jimenez has maintained a 3.7 GPA while participating in numerous extracurricular activities, including soccer and mariachi with Students in Action, and working 20 hours a week at Fiesta Foods.
When his name was announced as the highest HAAP scholar, Jimenez's first thought was, "I can accomplish my dreams now. This makes things more easy."
Jimenez was born in Pasco but was only a baby when his family moved to Mexico. At age 8, he was selling fruit or landscaping to help with his family's finances. His parents made the decision when he was 12 to send Jimenez back to the Tri-Cities to live with relatives, and the youth quickly had to learn English to adapt to his new environment.
He will be the first in his family to go to college.
Jimenez was joined by his tearful cousin, Perla Torres, on stage for the presentation. They agreed that his parents would be very proud.
When asked if he has any advice for the thousands of kids being honored Sunday, Jimenez said: "Work hard, do the best you can and never give up. Be hungry for success."
Esparza helped pass out the awards Sunday, placing a HAAP medal around the neck of each scholarship recipient.
With only six losses overall and none in more than nine years, she hopes to return to the podium with another medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
"I am no better. I am no stronger. I am no different. God didn't give me any special power. I just found what I love to do," Esparza told the crowd. "You have to believe with all your heart that you are good enough and worthy for everything you want in life. And after that, it's not a dream, it's a goal."
w Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer