WH deputy editor Lizza Gebilagin is fighting in the Boxing World Qualifiers in Perth this week as part of the NSW team. Whoever wins the tournament in their weight category will go on to represent Australia at the Women’s World Boxing Championships in India this November.
But unlike the athletes we feature regularly in Women’s Health, Lizza is not a born-sporting prodigy. God no. She’s a total nerd. She started off pretending to slay vampires (a la Buffy) during Body Combat classes and only had her first boxing match two years ago at the age of 34. Here, she talks about how she and the rest of her boxing team of “Average Joes” defied expectations to prove you’re never too old/weak/overweight to follow your crazy-ass dreams.
“You know what our team’s like?” my boxing coach Ben Savva asked during a break between the three-minute rounds of our PT session.
The image of a phoenix came to my mind – of us rising from the ashes of boxers who weren’t taken very seriously to transform into legit fighters. Like Jean Grey in The X-Men (or, if you aren’t familiar with the world of Marvel, the guys made-over on Queer Eye).
I was still on a high after finding out that four of us from Team Savva – Viviana Ruiz, Annabel Vogel, Caitlin Torrington and I – fighting out of our gym Boxing Works, had made the NSW state team for the Women’s World Qualifiers in Perth. Not only that, but Ben was named the NSW assistant coach.
“We’re like that team from the movie Dodgeball,” Ben said, smiling.
“Huh?” The conversation was not going in the direction I’d predicted.
“The Average Joes!” he answered genuinely. “You’ve all never been athletes, you’re all too old; a lot of you work in offices and are well-educated. You’re not typical boxers. When you walk into a boxing gym, you expect to see guys covered in tattoos. People must walk in here and see you lot and think it’s a boxercise class.”
I waited for the part where Ben was supposed to say he was joking - because Ben loved to tell jokes and there was always a punch line - but it didn’t come.
“You're all not what's expected and it’s great!” Ben continued. “As long as we’re winning matches, I don’t really care.”
When I had a chance to think about it more, I realised how right Ben was. We’re such an unlikely bunch of boxers to have made it to World Qualifiers. At 36, I’m the oldest member of the team, but the baby when it comes to boxing experience with only eight fights. I’m probably the nerdiest one too, having a lifelong affinity with books and writing. Without Ben as a coach and these women around me, I doubt I’d be half the boxer I am. We build each other up.
If anything, we’re proof that if you’re dedicated and believe in something enough, it’s so worth giving your dreams a shot. We don’t get paid to do this; most of us have full-time jobs that compete with our training commitments. But we’ve kept at it, because we love boxing and the way it's transformed our lives.
You’re never too old to become a champion
Take for instance Viv, who was the first to train with Ben way before he had enough fighters to call themselves a team. She started boxing when she was 31. (If you ask Google, most people think mid-20s is too old to embark on a serious boxing career.) She’s since had more than 30 fights, become the national champion at 54kg, the number one 51kg boxer in NSW and was the Silver Medallist at the National Commonwealth Games Qualifiers last year, only losing via a very controversial split decision.
“I did start late in boxing, but I am not sure if it was unfortunate or not,” Viv says. “Age is not an issue. We are in the 21st century: women raise children on their own, women have babies after 40 and are CEOs of companies. Sport isn’t different... Food is better, technology has improved the way we look after ourselves and has given us more years on the clock.”
It’s even more impressive that Viv came pretty close to representing Australia at the Commonwealth Games, considering she moved to Australia from Colombia eight years ago without being able to speak much English at all. (She now has more than enough arsenal in her vocabulary to boss us girls around at the gym. Haha! Love you, Viv…) She even gave up her job in IT, and full-time salary, to pursue boxing.
“It is an unreal feeling! Moving here, leaving my family and changing careers all because of boxing,” she says. “Australian boxing has given the happiness my heart was missing and a reason to wake up every day to become a champion.”
You can defy doctors’ expectations
And then there’s Annabel who, despite being diagnosed with arthritis when she was 24 and being forced to take a break from boxing early on after tearing two tendons, has gone on to have 20 fights, win two NSW state titles at 57kg and compete in the 2017 Commonwealth Games Qualifiers. Even now, doctors repeatedly tell her how surprised they are that she’s able to fight at an elite level.
"I had no intention of boxing. [My former coach] Johnny Lewis was in the boxing gym above my crossfit gym, and he got me to try it out, then quickly tricked me into having my first fight," Annabel says. "I was 25. The arthritis wasn't a real issue until after I started boxing, then my knee got bad soon after that."
Annabel didn't want to give up the sport she had just fallen in love with, so she was determined to find a solution. After seeing lots of experts, she finally found someone who gave her targeted exercises to help manage the pain. Now, she says: “I have my sights firmly set on World Championships this year, with representing the country at the 2020 Olympics the ultimate goal."
Annabel is also a Boxing Works coach and produces the Fox Sports program 'Fight Call Out', using these platforms to strongly advocate for a growing female presence in a male-dominated sport. “Boxing has honestly changed my life and I think it can do that for a lot more women,” she says. “You learn so much about what you're capable of - physically and mentally - which is really empowering.”
You’re never too heavy to start
Caitlin was 117kg with 40 per cent body fat when she decided to give boxing a go. “I started boxercise at the gym to improve fitness, lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle. It literally felt like home as soon as I threw a punch,” Caitlin says. “After years of partying and abusing alcohol - and my body - I needed something to light my fire again. I used alcohol and partying as a means to deal with depression and anxiety, because of this I became apathetic. Boxing makes you feel all the things!”
Over the past two years, Caitlin’s lost 42kg and now fights in the 75kg weight division. She’s had 23 fights, won two Novice State titles and won the State Title this year. She’s also fought world silver medallists, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist and Olympian. All this while juggling the pressure of working full-time as a designer.
She says boxing has also been good for her mental health. “Depression doesn’t affect me as much as it used to; it’s anxiety that still rears its ugly head, and it always will,” Caitlin admits. “I’ve been dealing with it long enough to know that eventually it passes – and hang onto the feeling of achievement when I get through it. Being part of a team makes a difference; having people around me with such strong character is life-saving. Being surrounded by incredibly strong, boss women is so damn inspiring.”
Exactly what she said.
Video by: Matthew Shanks/Epicentre.TV