SITTING down in the Edge café having just lead a women’s boxing taster session for a group of Leeds University students, Stacey Copeland might have looked a bit disappointed that it was all over.
For the best part of an hour, the European Silver Medallist and three-time national champion from Tameside, Greater Manchester, had taught the basics of boxing to a group of ‘give-it-a-go’ newbies, albeit on a dodgy knee which has been booked in for surgery. Buoyed by her instinctive bubbly personality, this fiery-eyed boxer might well have been injury-free, such was the enthusiasm and liveliness that seemed to overpower the rather reserved students kitted out in lycra before her, magnificently hiding how you wouldn’t be seen dead down a boxing gym wearing such fashionable tight fabric, or so she says in her own baggy Adidas tracksuit. Beneath her initially harsh, coarse voice with which I’d be tempted to associate the northern ‘tough-nut’ kind, lies a friendly, harmless character where punching jokes becomes just as easy as throwing real ones with gloves on.
Born and bred into a boxing-crazed family, Copeland’s love for the sport was nurtured from a young age by dad Eddie, who became an ABA Champion himself in 1979. A normal week would see her spend three nights down the boxing gym which her 83 year-old grandad Roy still runs, throwing punches that would often equal, if not better those of her male peers. “My family didn’t care if I was a boy or a girl. I was always going to be a boxer,” she says gleefully.
For Copeland, fighting and learning with the boys was a reality which she embraced, but in the wider boxing community, this might well have been merely a whimsical fantasy. At home, she admits to shoving cucumber slices in her mouth which would function perfectly as pretend gum-shields, smiling back at her reflection in the mirror and dreaming of representing her country as a female athlete in the sport she so adored.
This dream, however, was never to materialise in Copeland’s youth and was symptomatic of the frustration that women were subjected to in competitive sport and the discriminatory gender barriers that they have, in recent decades, fought to overcome. Female boxing, despite being a sport dating back centuries in other parts of the world where it was permitted, was officially banned in the UK until 1999, before boxer Jane Couch won a legal battle on grounds of sex discrimination and in doing so became the first British female boxer to be recognised in the ring. Women’s boxing, as with the male version, often divides opinion than most other sports, but more and more women are venturing into the ring. According to a survey by Sport England, the number of registered female boxers in Britain soared from just 70 in 2005 to more than 900 in 2009, and in England alone, the number grew by more than a quarter in the year following the announcement that women’s boxing would feature at the London 2012 Olympics, according to the Amateur Boxing Association of England.
Determined to stay in sport, Copeland decided to pursue a career in football, which she had always enjoyed alongside boxing, and which had finally been accepted by the FA in 1993. Progressing to play for Doncaster Belles, one of England’s most famous and top-flight clubs of the women’s game, Copeland’s playing days saw her leave for America, where she won a sports scholarship at St Edward’s University where she studied Sociology and played in the women’s semi-pro league in Dallas, before embarking on a new challenge in Sweden. It was during her senior playing days there, at the age of 29, when Copeland suffered a broken leg, an injury which she decided was “one too many” and with it she hung up her boots, having felt satisfied with what she had achieved in the sport. “I had done everything I had set out to do in football. I had played for England, played in an FA Cup final, had played abroad and after that last injury I kind of fell out of love with football in a strange kind of way.”
There’s a proverb that everything happens for a reason, and in Copeland’s case, such a saying couldn’t be truer. A couple of years prior to getting injured, she had watched the Women’s National Boxing Championships in 2006 and this was enough to rekindle the old boxing flame burning within her, which had never been snuffed out. “Watching the championships made me think of something that I’d always had in the back of my mind for all those years. Could I have been a boxer?” Footballing frustration was suddenly channelled into boxing curiosity, boots were exchanged for gloves. Under the watchful eye of dad Eddie who became her coach, she made her debut in February 2011 which saw her gain her first professional victory. “From that point on I was hooked. I loved the feeling,” she beamed.
Copeland set herself the goal of becoming an ABA champion – a feat she achieved twice and with it, she became with her dad, the first ever father-daughter duo to hold ABA titles. But the Mancunian-born boxer wanted to go even further, and after attending a talent camp at GB boxing in 2013, she successfully lost six kilograms in order to qualify for the European Championships, where she came away with a silver medal that same year.
Stacey’s story really is remarkable. There are few sportsmen and women who have represented their country in two different sports and even fewer who enter one of them at an elite level on the eve of turning 30. I thought of the ‘give-it-a-go’ students, most of whom I imagine were a decade younger. It would probably take a good load of guts – and a whole lot of confidence – to casually stroll into a boxing gym tomorrow, without any parent holding your hand, and try to mix in, become accepted, be seen as an equal and respected, as a girl. Women’s-only boxing gyms don’t exist, but more and more gyms are offering women’s-only boxing sessions, and so the sport is becoming more accessible but Stacey says it’d down to the person. “If you know in your heart you’re doing it for the right reasons, then you won’t care. Rather than waiting for others to accept you, you’ve got to accept yourself,” she says.
It’s all very well for women to accept themselves, but in a technological age where sport can be watched, read about, or listened to, the media still struggles to accept women in more ‘marginalised’, traditionally male sports such as boxing. London 2012 was a fine example of this. Women’s boxing was splashed across the media as a debuting sport in the Olympics, although it had previously appeared at the Games in 1904.
“We had such a successful London 2012 – we couldn’t have done any better, and here we are, on the brink of the next Olympics, and women’s boxing still only has three weight categories. It’s extremely frustrating,” says Stacey, who could never have qualified for Rio 2016 due to the limited amount of weight categories for women available.
Stacey is nonetheless continuing her own fight to keep female boxing in the public eye. She advocates the sport as a great way of keeping fit and admits that you don’t have to take it seriously to get the most out of it. Aside from working full-time in a secondary school and as an ambassador for Sporting Champions, she promotes women in sport through workshops and individually-run events, and is hoping to launch a regular women’s sport feature for Manchester TV, because “When you feel that passionately and strongly about it, you want to share it with everyone.”
I forgot to ask Stacey how many times, if any, she has been knocked out in a fight. Whatever the number, it’s obviously not enough to stop this inspirational and diligent athlete doing what she loves.
Featured image: Fiona Tomas