Nicola Adams, surely the most famous female pugilist on the planet, is a living, breathing, punching, knockout inspiration. Take this example from her personal box of anecdotes. “I was doing an event somewhere and this guy came up to me and said, ‘My daughter’s been doing ballet since she was three. She’s nine now and has packed it in to do boxing after seeing you box’.
“It’s amazing,” says the first woman to win Olympic and Commonwealth boxing titles before adding the inaugural European Games gold to her growing list of achievements this summer. No wonder she is an inspiration to girls and boys, women and men.
She is an infectious character with her sunny, down-to-earth nature and megawatt smile. She lights up the English Institute of Sport where she is based, and where the ring in which she won Olympic gold has been transported to Sheffield, a constant reminder of her breakthrough into the nation’s consciousness.
It has been a long and winding journey for the girl who grew up on a Leeds council estate. Rewind 20 years and a working men’s club in the west Yorkshire city. It might not sound like the most glamorous of sporting venues, but it is where Adams took a giant step in her boxing career.
She was just 13 and the prospect of her first fight at a junior boxing show only a year after taking up the sport was almost too much. “I was really excited and reallv giddy, jumping around everywhere,” she smiles. “My coach was telling me to sit down and save my energy.
“I got into the ring and at the time I’d been watching Prince Naseem Hamed so I was copying a lot of his moves – with my hands down. No, I didn’t flip into the ring. I wasn’t that good. I did do the Ali shuffle, though.”
There were just two girls’ bouts that night – both of them drawing a positive reaction from the crowd – as Adams claimed her first victory. If there was any opposition to girls boxing that night she was unaware. “When you are that age you are kids, you are getting in the ring, doing some sport. I’d never have known, I just liked doing boxing at the time.”
Adams was first introduced to boxing at home. Her father Innocent played re-runs of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard fight, and the young girl was mesmerised. Then, at 12, came a number of landmark moments. Her parents split up, leaving mother Dee to bring up the young Nicola and her six-year-old brother Kurtis.
On one occasion Dee had an aerobics class, but no babysitter, so the children accompanied her to the gym. It was a life-changing moment for the daughter. She joined in a boxing class and the rest is history.
She twinkles as she explains what drew her to boxing. “Just seeing everyone punching the bags, in the ring sparring, everybody just working hard. I put the gloves on and I just loved it! I loved punching the bags, I liked the fact that whatever I put in is what I got out, the harder I worked at the sport the better I got and I liked that. When you get in the ring it’s not a team sport, it’s you in there. It’s only you who can win.”
She was treated like anybody else in the gym, not as a female boxer. “When I teach kids in schools you don’t separate them as boys and girls, you just train them as one, you don’t really think of genders when they are that age. I think that was the same thing with my coach – he didn’t really consider me a girl or a boy, he trained you all together as one which I thought was really nice actually. It was nice not to be singled out because I was a girl.”
Life struck another blow when she was 14. Her mother was kept in hospital with meningitis, and Nicola became responsible for Kurtis, now aged eight. She shopped, cooked and cleaned. She made sure she got herself and Kurtis to school. Visited her mother. Trained. Sometimes an aunt came to visit, but more often than not it was just the two of them.
“Looking back, I think how the hell did I look after me and him at such a young age, but I guess you do what you have to do. Sometimes I would have to miss out on things because I had to look after my brother. Or be visiting my mum. But I didn’t mind too much, I just knew it had to be done.
“I am the kind of person that if it has to be done then I need to just get on with it and do it. It is how it is. It’s like that saying, ‘It’s not about the cards you’re dealt, but how you play the hand’.”
The gym became a refuge. Nicola continued to train while her mother recuperated. All the time Adams was convinced that one day she would be an Olympic champion, even though there was no boxing for women at the Games then. That all changed in August 2009 when the International Olympic Committee lifted their opposition to the last all-male summer sport.
Life does not run smoothly, though. That same year Adams fell down a flight of stairs, a back injury confining her to bed for months. But she managed to get on to the British team for London 2012. Once there she became the first woman to win Olympic boxing gold when she defeated China’s Ren Cancan in the flyweight division at Wembley Arena.
With victory came responsibility. “It was quite strange because when I first won the gold medal I was just thinking I want to win, I didn’t realise I was going to end up being a role model and kids would look up to me. Kids still tweet me now saying I am their hero, so it is kind of surreal and an honour really to be looked up to so highly.
“I like to go to schools, just being able to inspire kids in general and to let them see that hard work really does pay off. If you work hard at something you can achieve anything. And I think that is what they see when they see me – they see a girl who came from a normal council estate, my family aren’t rich or anything, it was just hard work and focus that got me to where I am today.”
Openly bisexual, Adams topped the Pink List in 2012 and has embraced becoming a figurehead. “For people to have someone to look up to in that way, and be able to come out to their friends or family … I think it’s really nice. I think it is quite a weight to have on your shoulders if you are hiding all the time, always worried about what everybody is going to say. I didn’t have that kind of pressure for that long because I just didn’t cope with that, it was too much. It is quite tough and some people go years and never come out but I don’t know – it must almost be like living a double life for me. And that for me – I just haven’t got time.”
Next up are the World Championships in Kazakhstan which will act as one of two chances to qualify for the Olympics in Rio in 2016. They will also give Adams the chance to claim her first world title, having previously had to settle for silver medals. Beyond Rio, there are choices to be made. She could remain amateur and go to Tokyo in 2020. Or take up acting. Or television presenting.
Whatever Adams chooses to do, the constant in her life is her mother, a woman who she looks up to and is inspired by, the family having been through a number of tough times. “I remember thinking to myself, I really want to do well in the boxing and show her how much I’ve achieved and I’ve been able to do that now.
“She is so happy I have won the gold medal and been honoured with an MBE, but it’s credit to her really. She kept me and my brother on the straight and narrow, kept us in school and focused, kept me at my boxing and it has all paid off.”
— Action Woman (@BTSportAW) November 9, 2015
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Liz Byrnes. After an early career in PR and marketing, Liz changed her focus to what she had always really wanted and re-trained as a journalist in Sheffield. She spent 12 years at PA where she covered football, athletics and swimming before going freelance in January 2014. She now works for a number of organisations including The Guardian, BBC, Sheffield Star, Wardles, SwimVortex, AFP and Arena. Liz’s latest articles
Nicola Adams has been nominated for the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year 2015.
During the voting process for the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year, the Mixed Zone will be publishing exclusive interviews with all 10 contenders to help you make your choice.
The winner will be decided by public vote, which closes on Monday, November 23, and will be revealed live on the Action Woman of the Year Awards show, presented by Clare Balding on BT Sport 1, on Tuesday, December 1.
For a full list of the 10 sportswomen in line for the prestigious title – and details of how to vote CLICK HERE.