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“I almost feel like it was my destiny to go to the Olympics and win gold. Something was always telling me at the back of my mind that you need to stick at at boxing, this is going to be your way out, this is your way to having a better life. Boxing is your path.” - Nicola Adams
Olympic gold medal-winning boxer Nicola Adams talks to Adam Darke about her life in sport, from her tough upbringing in Leeds to achieving her dream at London 2012.
With contributions from trainer Alwyn Belcher, fellow boxer Kid Galahad and her mother Dee, this programme provides a vivid insight into a character who suffered from a lack of funding which nearly forced her to quit boxing, a back injury which set her back several months, yet returned to take Olympic victory over her great rival, Ren Cancan of China. Nicola reveals that as a youngster she looked up to boxers Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.
“It was always a big family thing, everyone would sit around and watch the big fights, we’d always have the re-runs on of Muhammad Ali boxing and Sugar Ray Leonard. It was really really exciting and watching the fights and seeing the crowd, and how everybody cheers, I was just amazed by it all, especially watching some of Muhammad Ali’s fights back, I just thought wow. He gets in there and absolutely destroys all his opponents then outside of the ring he was like totally different person.”
But she didn’t take up the sport until at the age of 13 she was taken to an after-school boxing class, which gave her the opportunity to forget about her parents’ split and her mother’s illness through meningitis.
“Boxing gave me a bit of stability there was other kids there, they might have had a break-up or some sort of problem going on, and it was nice because you go to that gym and you’d leave your problems outside the door.”
Her first bout was a landmark moment, she explains - despite being in unglamorous surroundings.
“I boxed at an old working men’s club. I remember getting warmed up and feeling so good and thinking, ‘I’m going to do that move like Prince Naseem does tonight,’ I’ve gone into the ring and the first round starts and I’m switch hitting, I’m throwing screw shots, I’m doing the Ali shuffle and I just absolutely loved it.”
As her boxing career progressed, she accrued a haul of medals at national, European and World Championship levels. But Nicola struggled to find funding to continue boxing and had to find work where she could get it - renovating houses and working as a TV extra.
“I knew that it wasn’t an Olympic sport or whether I’d even get any funding from it, I just had this feeling inside that I was gonna make it as a boxer and I’d be able to give my family a good life. It was really hard, couldn’t get funding, couldn’t get sponsors, barely got any help from the government body, so it was tough, it was really tough. I was doing extra work for Coronation Street and Emmerdale, working behind the scenes, being one of the whisperers in the background.”
In 2009, at the same time as her sport was announced as a 2012 Olympic event, she fell down the stairs at her house and had to sit out boxing for several months. Her mother explains how demoralised she became: “She wanted to give up when she hurt her back. I then had to say to her, ‘Nicci - you’ve got to get up and get on with it. It’s now in the Olympics, it’s an Olympic sport, and you just can’t throw it away, give it a go.”
Yet she fought back and lost to her main rival, Ren Cancan, in the final of the World Championships in 2010 and then in May 2012. She explains how this drove her on to Olympic gold in London:
“The ten weeks leading up to the games I was like… I really wanted to get the gold medal, I really wanted to beat Ren Cancan - I actually made that my sole goal. In training I wasn’t even thinking about any of my other opponents, I was just thinking about beating Cancan. And then there was the knockdown in the second round, I wasn’t expecting her to go down, I was shocked myself - I was like, ‘Bloody hell I’m doing really well here.’ I carried on boxing and I get back to the corner and they’re like, ‘Right, you’re two points up.’ I realised by the end of the fight they were telling me that to keep me focused so I didn’t switch off. I kept my wits about me, she didn’t steal any points back.”
Nicola talks through her emotions at the time: “It was almost like my life was like, the memories were just flashing through my mind of all the hard times the struggles and it was all for that moment. And it was like, ‘I’ve finally finally done it - I’ve finally achieved my dream.’”
But while her achievement resonated on a personal level, she believes the symbolic lift it gave women’s boxing will boost a sport which was only sanctioned by UK boxing authorities in 1997.
“This is time for women’s boxing to come out of the dark ages and into the light, basically, and I just wanted to show everyone what women’s boxing was about.”
Now she says she’s looking to the future: “There are a few little things which are bugging me a little bit, I haven’t had a gold medal in the world championships yet so I really want to get that, and there is a chance that I could get a first in the Commonwealths, so I’d really like to get the full set on that. And hopefully go to Rio and do something that no British boxer’s ever done and become a double Olympic champion. So with those goals in mind I’m going to be pretty busy in the next few years.”
After her Olympic gold and receiving an MBE, trainer Alwyn Belcher gives an insight into what drives her:
“She loves the big stage, the bigger the better, she’s a little show-off. Bubbly, bubbly even when she’s boxing you see her dancing, [doing the] Ali shuffle, showgirl. She loves the razzmatazz. She’s a pop star isn’t she, a pop star in boxing. Number one.”