Steluta Duta takes part in a training session in Buzau, Romania.
A teenage orphan girl who was left homeless becomes an elite athlete and turns to be an inspiration for many.
Being homeless and an orphan makes a person tough, tough enough to fight for a living.
Steluta Duta stepped through the door of a boxing gym in the town of Buzau and embarked on her unlikely path to becoming an elite athlete.
Duta, whose first name means "little star", has fought for almost two decades in the ring, with every punch thrown bringing her closer to what she calls "a normal life, away from misery" and becoming an inspiration for others like her.
Romania is one of the poorest in the European Union, with 38 per cent of children at risk of social exclusion and poverty, according to Eurostat.
Becoming a boxer "was my only chance, my gamble", Duta, a short woman with cropped hair dyed blond, tells AFP during a break from her training at the gym in Buzau, a town in southeastern Romania.
At 38, Duta is a three-time silver medallist at the sport's World Championships and a three-time gold medal-winner at the European Championships in the light flyweight category.
When Duta left her orphanage aged 17, she initially became homeless and even thought about suicide.
When Voicilas learned the truth he converted part of the gym into a bedroom to make sure she had somewhere to sleep.
Sport as a lifeline
Duta overcame formidable odds to build a successful career in Romania.
A Save the Children report released in late 2019 cited a host of threats to child welfare, particularly in rural areas: high education dropout rates, limited access to healthcare and a prevalence of physical and emotional abuse as a form of discipline.
Duta is now helping the next generation to fight those obstacles in the ring.
At the Buzau boxing gym, she often spars with Bianca Lacatusu, a shy teenager 20 years her junior.
Lacatusu also had a tough childhood.
Her parents died when she was seven months old, when she was placed with a foster family who later handed her over to an orphanage.
"I like to fight... I don't know how the Master found me, but I'm glad he did," Bianca tells AFP, using Voicilas's nickname.
Lacatusu says that Duta has been an inspiration to her -- and that she dreams of one day defeating her in the ring.
Adrian Lacatus, the national boxing team coach who has worked closely with Duta, says that girls from tough backgrounds often display this will to succeed.
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