The clock ticks on a high school coaching career closing in on fourty years. I am blessed, been given a box seat to countless memorable performances. I get to work with literally hundreds of top-flight athletes and even finer people. So many display impressive skill, dedication and character. The very best, nearly twenty all told, progress on to successful careers at senior international level, in a variety of sports. The list includes Olympians, World Cuppers and Hall of Famers. Their stories are noteworthy.
Still, one other story might, in its own way, be even more remarkable, the pathway certainly more unlikely. It begins in 1997, when, on a blustery mid November morning, a grade 10 student waits shyly outside my office door. I do not know her particularly well. Though I understand she has not been selected for the Junior Girls basketball team.
The young girl has a most unusual request. She asks if she might now attempt to claim one of the final roster spots on the Senior squad I am coaching.
The answer should be no, but there is just something about her, a hidden presence of sorts. She is nervous but maintains eye contact. She promises to train hard, to compete every day to the best of her ability. Won’t be a distraction. Understands floor time will be non-existent, or minimal at best.
In the end, I agree to her proposal. Having long trumpeted that character tops talent, it is time to practice what I preach.
The young girl more than keeps up her end of the bargain. First to arrive at practice, the last to leave. Extremely coachable, quietly doing everything asked of her. Improving slowly but surely, even if nowhere near good enough to feature in the actual playing rotation.
Then she dogs it out for two further seasons. She is steady but hardly spectacular. Yet, her attitude and commitment remain steadfast.
It is now the fall of 2000. High school graduation complete, the teenager attends university in Edmonton, her hometown. To my surprise, she tries out for Women’s varsity basketball.
I don’t tell her, but I don’t think she is quite good enough to play at the post secondary level. But she proves me wrong. As training camp edges towards conclusion, she defies the odds and remains part of the squad.
Then, disaster. At practice, having executed a hard cut, she crashes to the floor in a heap. Her season is over before it has even started. A torn ACL requires surgery and a long, arduous recovery.
Amazingly, this devastating injury just becomes the springboard for a most astonishing journey. It starts when a therapist recommends boxing as part of the rehabilitation process. Almost immediately something clicks, as the patient chances on the rhythms of the gym. In the months that pass, she gains in confidence, her body healing as she discovers a certain grace and power. Not to mention a devastating left hook.
Moreover, the daily habits and characteristics she displayed in high school again bloom. Boxing is a brutally taxing sport, requiring not only nerve and courage, but almost superhuman determination, discipline and focus. One in which failing to prepare properly can have disastrous consequences.
Thousands of hours of running and skipping later, after thousands of hours both pounding the heavy bag and sparring, she turns professional in January 2003.
A storied career now stretches over a staggering seventeen years. She fights all over the world, wins 40 bouts, 19 by knockout. Over three divisions, lightweight, featherweight and super featherweight, she becomes an EIGHT-TIME world champion.
Along the way, she loses a few fights as well. Yet, not surprisingly to me, these setbacks just become opportunities to learn. To refocus on the basics, to adapt as required, to never make excuses. And, allied to her skill and self belief, in showing humility and resilience she becomes both a true standard-bearer and role model for young women.
Her most recent battle took place yesterday in Los Angeles. She enters the ring with a heavy heart, for the very first time without her mentor and long-time trainer in her corner. The WBA featherweight belt is at stake. In an all action encounter, against a hyper aggressive opponent from Mexico, she shows great mental strength and stubbornness, as well as the necessary experience and polish, to absorb an accidental fourth round gash above her cheekbone.
In the end, class and pedigree shine through. Throwing plenty of leather, she does enough to record a unanimous ten round decision and retain her title.
Today, I ponder sport and its endless twists and turns. The joys and disappointments. The drama. The emotional investment, the magnetic pull of our favourite teams and players.
And why we especially love and idolize the elite performers, the very best of whom are known all around the globe by just a single name.
Pele, Tiger, Magic. Rocket and LeBron. Serena, Nadia, and others.
I am biased, but Boxing can add a candidate to the list as well. A woman who rises from humble beginnings to conquer the world.
Find out for yourself. Go on Google. Just type in one word.