An Interview With Stacey Copeland
By Chris Akers
There are many kids who reply when asked what they want to be when they want to grow up, will be some form of athlete, be it a footballer, rugby player, cricketer and so on.
Some of those kids will try and achieve that dream. Some will succeed, most will fail. Yet usually the reasons for failure at that young age are due to a lack of talent or work ethic. Imagine if the reason for a kid not achieving their sporting dream, was down to none of those things, but because the sport they wanted to participate it was illegal.
This what happened to Stacey Copeland at the age of 11:
“Well I’d been doing it since I was six or seven. As a little kid I used to slice off a cucumber and mould my own gumshield, running round the kitchen thinking I was a world champion. It’s just that when I was 11, at that age you can start what are called skills bouts, like development bouts. When I asked about it, it was my grandad, it was his gym, he told me that it wasn’t possible because it was illegal. I couldn’t believe it as I’d done everything all my little lads mates did in the gym. Going to the boxing gym, doing all the training. Just lived it and breathe it really. When I found out I couldn’t do it, I was gutted. But that’s the way it was at the time. It simply just wasn’t legal for women”.
At this point of the story, Copeland’s sporting path took a different turn. Blocked from boxing, she turned to another sport.
“So that’s why I went into football, because I loved football as well. Back then they were some good opportunities starting up for girls in women’s football. So, I ended up going into women’s football completely. Consumed me really for many years. I wasn’t a matter of having doubts, there just wasn’t anything anyone could do. I just wasn’t able to do it. So, I came to it later.”
Speaking to her in a room in the gym where she trains in Hyde, it is immediately clear that Copeland is fiercely determined. Which is why it comes as no surprise that the change in sport became a success. She attended St Edwards University in Austin, Texas on a soccer scholarship, played for England Under 18s and her final season as a pro was in the women’s league in Sweden.
Yet her infinity for boxing was still there:
“I’d been keeping up with my boxing training. I always went in the off season of football and was always doing some form of boxing training anyway throughout my football career.”
While on the scholarship in the States, Copeland always came home every summer and Christmas. It was during one of her stays home during the summer that she heard about a contest….
“One summer when I was home, I saw a poster for the women’s national championships as by then, women’s boxing was legal. It was held in Manchester. It was one of the rounds of the nationals.
“Watching women boxing it was the first time I’d seen women boxing. I’d watched maybe a couple of clips of it on television here and there, but certainly not a full fight. Certainly not live. I just thought, ‘when I fulfilled what I set out to do in football, I really want to pursue that dream’ and I never lost that hunger and desire to do it.
“When I watched I thought ‘I can do this’. I knew it would take an enormous amount of dedication. It would have to be a massive focus and take over my life, but I knew I was prepared to do that as I had done with football. It sparked something. I always wanted to do it. It was just whether I’d get the chance. I set my sights on it and I knew it would happen then.”
Though seeing a poster for the women’s national championships in her hometown, after living and studying in a country at a time where the female boxing scene and arguably female athletes were more appreciated, was there not a temptation to turn amateur through the American route?
“It’s a good question but I think it always made sense for my dad to be my coach as an amateur, as he’d been there and done it all. He’d won the ABA title, so when I did, it made us the first father and daughter to both win senior ABA titles and he’d boxed for England. He’d gone through that whole process and who better to put my trust in and my faith in terms of guiding me in the right way, both in and out of the ring. So firstly, that was a big part of the decision.
“Secondly on a personal level, my niece had just been born and I really wanted to come home and be part of her life. Also, my big goal was to become ABA champion. In order to do that, all of that meant coming home. It never really figured in my mind staying there to box”.
It is clear already that Copeland (5-0) has a drive to achieve what she aims for. It’s also clear how much she likes the sport of boxing. Though while she has family members who were and are boxers, what attracted her to the sport was initially unclear.
“No idea (what attracted her to boxing). My dad was a boxer and my grandad ran our gym but that was the same as all our siblings. I’ve got two cousins who are boxers but nobody else was interested. I don’t know what attracts people to different sports. I think as a kid you enjoy the social aspect and been amongst your friends and the general gym environment. As I’ve got older, I enjoyed the physical challenge of it and what it can mean in other areas of your life. I suppose it’s hard to know what you love one thing but not another.”
As an amateur, Copeland won the national title three times. She also represented GB in the European Championships in Bucharest winning a silver medal, an experience she describes as ‘surreal.’
“It is an amazing experience for any athlete to represent your country. I think even if you think you can do it, when it actually happens it’s something quite special. But I think if you add on to that layer that I was banned from doing the sport as a kid, not just me personally but women weren’t allowed to do it, to then represent your country is that much more special. It really hit home one, what you are capable of doing yourself but also just how far something can come if enough people get behind it and believe in it and sometimes the impossible sometimes can become possible.
“Not only getting to box and not only getting to box for my country but then standing on a podium with a medal round my neck watching my country’s flag be raised, it was hard to put into words what that was like.”
One downside of Copeland’s amateur career is that she never had the chance to represent Team GB at a multi-sport event. Women’s boxing was just coming into the Olympics as she was starting her career. A positive that women’s boxing is in the Olympics, though Copeland feels there has been one setback that needs to be rectified.
“The disappointing thing about that for me is that they had only three weight categories for women and 10 for men. It was still disappointing that they did that at the initial Olympics, but the biggest disappointment was that they kept it the same for Rio as well. A lot of us had really hoped that because of the enormous success of women’s boxing in London that they would increase to eight categories and of course they didn’t.
“They have now increased it to five. We weren’t told repeatedly that part of the problem was that the Olympics was getting too big and then they go and add five new sports. I think if you are going to champion, and this includes the Commonwealth Games and the European Games too, they don’t have equal weight categories and none of my weights were at those competitions. It was just devastated not to the chance to even have a pop at reaching that pinnacle as an amateur athlete of going to those multi-sport games. So, to not even have the chance was a sickener.”
This leads to her views on diversity and inclusion:
“That’s where there’s an enormous difference between diversity and inclusion. Diversity might mean you’re ticking the box and you have representatives from different genders, minorities, LGBT, but if they are not made to feel included, whether that’s by policy, by social stigma, by institutionalised prejudices, whatever it is, then it’s not quite the same experience for those who are left out. I think it was deeply disappointing. If you are going to champion and use words like equality in your values, you should be doing better.”
This is best demonstrated when she turned professional and in her fifth fight, fought for the Commonwealth title fight against Mapule Ngubane in Zimbabwe. Initially the experience was a good one:
“It was just amazing. For whatever reason, you don’t know what make you do certain things. As a kid I read lots of travel books. I was quite fascinated by other cultures and other places and Africa seemed to capture something in me and I always wanted to go. I assumed it would be after sport, maybe do something with sport, but not as a competitor.
“To combine it with the sport I love and get to visit a place I really wanted to go to, it was special. To say not just visit, but we got to visit schools, meet a lot of the people and go to an animal sanctuary, it was phenomenal as an experience. The people are fantastic.”
Most people when they win a championship receive a trophy. Even kids win a certificate on their school sports day. Yet not only Copeland told before the contest that no belt would be presented to the winner, but upon returning home and enquiring about purchasing the belt, that she would be unlikely to afford it unless she had a sugar daddy.
As patronising as that is, in her opinion, are female pro boxers still treated like that? I put it to her that there isn’t one female holder of a Lonsdale belt.
“I think there’s a couple of things that go on and are part of it. I think there’s an element that is deliberate for not halting but slowing down the progress of women in boxing, because there’s some people who don’t like it and they don’t want it to progress or be there at all.
“I also think there’s an element of it being new and I think one of the reasons I think it’s important to have diversity in positions of influence, power and decision making is that it is very hard or harder for people who are not part of a certain group to think what it’s like to be in that group. I’m not an ethnic minority, I’m not a person with a disability. But obviously I am a female in a male dominated sport, so I can see the impact from the gender point of view. So, I think it’s really important to have people in positions of power.
“I’ll give you an example. One of the things that’s holding up the British title, as I had a conversation with the head of the British boxing board, is that the Lonsdale belt has to be defended three times. Their point is that there is not enough depth in the women’s game for us to defend it three times against legitimate opponents and that potentially we could end up fighting the same person three times, which if you’re just going to think in one tunnel box makes sense.
“However, if you want to develop anything, whether it’s creating opportunities in business, in leadership, whatever, we don’t say ‘well we can never have people working here who have a disability as we have stairs everywhere’. We have to think ‘ok, that’s a problem that’s there, but how to be overcome it’, to open it up to those people.
“You have to say what are the barriers and speak to the people affected by it rather than you sitting at a desk either deciding they don’t want to. It’s similar with this. if the only issue that’s stopping us fighting for a British title is there’s not many of us and we have to defending it three times, well then create a belt that isn’t so expensive as the Lonsdale belt. Called it women’s British title belt if you want. Name it after Jane Couch if you want to, who’s a pioneer of our game. Call it something else, create one which is not as expensive.
“Say you box for it once and either you get to keep it if you pay for it or you can buy a replica like a lot of the men do. Top level men don’t defend it three times if they’re going to go onto world titles. They win it so they’ve done it, ticked that box, buy a replica and crack on with the world title. If that’s the best level that you will get to, obviously you will defend it three times and own it outright. we need those incentives. There’s no chicken or the egg thing. We start things and then everything follows. So give us the opportunity. And also, why should we not be able to fight for it cos there’s fewer of us.
“There might be fewer but there might be two in every category that are top class boxers. Why should they not be able to fight for that domestic title? That would create domestic rivalries, that would get people interested in it, it would grow the sport and encourage participation. Young girls will watch the likes of potentially Tasha Jonas, Chantelle Cameron, me and Hannah Rankin fighting for a British Title, they’ll know that is something to inspired to as oppose to just sitting here and saying the same things over and over again.”
The last couple of years, she has been sponsored by Sports Tours International.
“They’ve been brilliant. They’ve set up the Running Bee Foundation so I’m an ambassador for that and they give back a lot to the local communities through running races. They do 10ks and fun runs and all the proceeds go to fighting childhood obesity and getting people active. So that’s been great cos they fund local projects that are already happening.”
Sponsorship for Copeland is more than just giving money to an athlete and them helping promote a product:
“I’m not a big fan of getting a lump sum of money and that’s great and I know sometimes that’s a means to an end and you have to have that, but I tend to prefer being involved and giving something back, cos I’m people oriented. Sport for me is one of the most powerful things on the planet for making a difference and I’ve been very fortunate that I have a passion for it.”
Making a difference is all important to Copeland, hence why she set up a project for women’s sports week a few years ago which has since developed such momentum and become an organisation called Pave the Way:
“It was a project that I set up for a week for women’s sports week. It was only going to last a week. We did lots of school visits, community visits, photography exhibition about women who work in sport. I wanted young girls to know that if you’re not competitive or you have a sport but just can’t earn a living out of it because of the nature of the sport, that there are lots of careers that whatever skills and attributes you’ve got, can lend themselves to a career in sport.
“But they need to know that, before they know that’s even a pathway. The photo exhibition is on permanent display. From that first week, it just gained some much momentum. It’s a slogan that I use personally. I didn’t have a natural boxing nickname, because my nickname to all my friends is Spongebob (laughs), which isn’t really that appropriate for boxing. It’s not that intimidating! So, I thought I’d rather go with something that I stand for which is Pave the Way.”
Throughout the interview, it is clear how well Copeland can articulate her opinions on various issues. This was put to good use when she did a TED talk on performance anxiety. How it that come about?
“It came about because I was at the Northern Power Women awards a couple of years ago and there was a woman there named Hayley, who I’d seen play piano at a TED Liverpool event. She just came over to me and asked ‘as a boxer, how do you deal with nerves.’
“So I started talking about some of the techniques that I’ve employed over the years that have worked for me. She said that she has the same thing in music. I never even thought about it in that way. We just got chatting and she said she worked at the Royal Northern College of Music and would I consider speaking to some of the students about this, it might help them. I said of course.
“I’m getting it all organised and about eight to 10 weeks before the talk I get all this TED paperwork through. I said wait a minute, is this a TED event, oh my God! It’s the only time I’ve ever talked about that. I never talked about it before, never talked about it since. It’s the only time I’ve ever done that talk, but it was a good experience.
“I’m really excited that at the end of February I’m talking at TED Manchester and that’s going to be my talk, which is about my experience in sport and Pave The Way. It’s an enormous opportunity for me and one I’m delighted to have.”
Copeland’s boxing career has spanned from the beginnings of women been allowed to box in the UK to its current standing.
Throughout the rest of the interview, she speaks in positive terms about how life changing it is for a lot of women to have had two more weight divisions added to the Olympic boxing competition. About how fantastic it is that the participation levels in women’s boxing at all levels. How more women are headlining shows and selling more tickets. How female coaches like Amanda Groarke and Amanda Coulsen are coming through the system and working for Team GB.
Afterwards I watched her spar. Trainee coaches are been put through their paces in the gym as the sparring session occurs. When punches are landed, sweat sprays off the women’s faces like autumn leaves coming off trees on a strong windy day.
Yet no one bat an eyelid nor turns their head in surprise at the combatants in the ring. This is a far cry from the illegality of women’s boxing when Stacey Copeland first aspired to compete in the sport.
Complacency should not set in with regards to the progress women had made in the sport. Though progress has been made. With boxers such as Stacey Copeland, while praising, always rightfully asking what more can be done, women’s boxing is currently in rude health.