Not being much of a boxing fan, I hadn’t heard of Nicola Adams until she became one of the names to watch at the London Olympics in 2012.
Born and brought up in the Yorkshire city of Leeds, Nicola was 29 years old when she competed in her first Olympic Games. Having won silver at the Women’s World Boxing Championships in China in 2008, she might well have been on course to take a medal at the Beijing Olympics in the same year, except that in 2008 women’s boxing wasn’t an Olympic sport.
Nicola Adams might never have got into boxing at all, had it not been for an unexpected event. One evening, when she was 12 years old, her mum, Dee, was getting ready to go out to an aerobics class at a local gym. Nicola was due to be looked after by a babysitter while her mum was out, but the babysitter cancelled at the last minute. Not wanting to leave Nicola and her little brother alone in the house, Dee took her children along to the gym with her.
The gym happened to house a boxing club, and when the coach saw Nicola hanging around he asked if she’d like to have a go at boxing. Finding this suggestion preferable to sitting around waiting for her mum’s class to finish, she went into the boxing gym and was immediately enthralled by what she saw.
After an inspiring introduction to the sport, she could talk of little else and begged her mum to let her take boxing lessons. When she turned 13 she was permitted to attend the gym on her own three times a week, and after a year’s training the coach asked her if she’d like to enter a competition. Having a naturally competitive personality she jumped at the chance, and fought her first boxing match aged 13 in a working men’s club in Leeds. She won the match, and it fired her up for more. A big fan of Muhammad Ali, Nicola decided she wanted to rise to the top of women’s boxing, and was determined to become an Olympic champion.
She came up with this idea in the mid-90s, when women’s boxing was nowhere near becoming an Olympic sport. Despite that fact, something inside her led her to believe that she would, one day, win an Olympic gold medal. As it turned out, she had to wait another 16 years for that dream to come true, and in the intervening years she boxed as much as she could.
Women’s boxing was almost unheard of in Britain twenty years ago, so Nicola had to travel abroad to compete against other female boxers. It was a constant struggle to find enough opponents to hone her skills on, and the lack of funding for the sport often meant she couldn’t afford to travel to competitions. By the time she reached her early 20s a local Yorkshire company and the Hilton hotel group offered her sponsorship. Intent on making boxing her career, she moved to London where there was greater support for women’s boxing.
In 2009, the International Olympic Committee announced that women’s boxing would be included in the 2012 Olympic Games. This was the big chance Nicola had been waiting for, but it came at a time when her entire boxing career was on the verge of being scuppered.
When she was leaving her flat in London one day, she tripped and fell down a flight of stairs. At first she didn’t think she’d done herself too much harm but a few weeks later, following a scan, it was discovered that she’d damaged some of her vertebrae. The pain in her back had been getting worse and she was told she would have to wear a body cast and get plenty of rest to have any hope of recovery. For months she was on high level pain relief and at one stage had to spend several weeks in hospital. The doctors reassured her she would get better, but reiterated the advice that rest was the only cure. Slowly but surely, her back did heal and she gradually returned to training in short bursts.
In her first tournament following the injury, she amazingly beat the World No.1, World Champion and European Champion in the space of one week. Her consistency and skill was enough to guarantee her a place at the London Olympics, in the very first Olympic women’s boxing tournament.
After working her way through the early matches, she was faced with her arch rival, Cancan of China, in the Olympic final. They had fought each other twice before and won a match each. In their most recent fight, at the World Championships in China, it was Cancan who had been victorious. The defeat had left Nicola furious with herself and determined to beat Cancan in their next match. It could hardly have been on a bigger stage, but Nicola was ready and completely focused on her goal. When the match ended and Nicola was declared the winner, she had finally achieved the ambition she’d set her heart on 16 years earlier.
Four years later she was competing in the Rio Olympics, and again came face to face with Cancan, although this time in the semi-final. Triumphant again, Nicola went on to fight Sarah Ourahmoune of France. Although Ourahmoune put up a good fight, Nicola was convinced the match was going her way. She was right, and she claimed her second Olympic gold medal.
Hot on the heels of her incredible achievements, Nicola Adams decided to turn professional. In the book, she says that making this decision means she’ll have to count herself out of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 because she won’t have time to concentrate on both a professional boxing career and training for the Olympics. She has admitted, however, that as the next Olympics draws nearer she might be tempted to change her mind about that.
As I read this book I was struck by several aspects of Nicola’s character. The book is well written by a ghost writer, and Nicola’s personality bounces off the pages. Nicola Adams is undoubtedly an optimist. She is also fiercely competitive and supremely self-confident. I’ve read a few sporting biographies and noticed these traits in other top athletes. Like her idol, Muhammad Ali, she isn’t afraid of calling herself the greatest at what she does. In some people this can seem brashly boastful but with Nicola, as with Ali, it doesn’t come across that way.
This book left me with the impression that Nicola Adams is indeed a great champion, someone with charm and charisma as well as consummate skill. As of May 2016 she was the Olympic, World, Commonwealth and European Champion. I can’t help wondering if she’s reached her peak or if there might be still greater things to come. Only time will tell.