Stacey Copeland: “I’ve always had a massive passion for using sport for good. I think it’s one of the most powerful things on the planet for making a difference to people.”
By Hannah Lucas
Being part of a family that had boxing engraved in its DNA, Stacey Copeland dreamed of following in her father, Eddie Copeland’s, and her grandfather, Roy Richardson’s footsteps, only to be told that it was illegal for girls to box.
As she knew that competitive boxing was out-of-reach, she turned to her other love, football. A sport in which, at the time, equality was beginning to develop.
After accomplishing a successful career, achieving all she set out to, including an England call-up, and with the news that boxing had become legal for girls, it was time to finally glove-up and tick boxing off her to-do list.
With her dad, a former ABA champion, as her trainer, Copeland made her amateur debut in February 2011. Her career progressed sweetly and saw her win silver at the European Championships, along with gold and best boxer at the Multi-Nations tournament.
But, due to the undeveloped nature of the women’s sport, she would never get the chance to play out her ultimate dream of fighting on the Olympic stage.
She said: “I guess the saddest thing for me was that I didn’t get chance to qualify for the Olympic Games or the Commonwealth Games, because they don’t have equal weight categories for women and my weight category wasn’t one they had. And that’s an awful thing, that inequality can prevent someone from having the chance of reaching their potential and reaching for their dreams.”
Then after five years of success, her amateur run grinded to a halt.
Copeland went into meniscus surgery expecting to recover in time for the European and World Championships, only to come out of it with a second-degree chemical burn. The persistent infections and delayed treatment initiated the end of her amateur career. But, her love for boxing and desire to achieve even more lead her to tease with the idea of joining the professional ranks.
“Because I knew I’d have to wait another two years for the next Europeans and Worlds, there was no Olympics or Commonwealth possible for me, there was nothing any longer sparking that fire in me to stay amateur. So I wanted a brand-new challenge.
“Thinking of turning professional, the different opponents and goals I could set myself, got me excited and I tend to need that mix of fear and excitement to compel me to really want to do something and that’s what the thought of turning pro did for me. It gave me the jangle of nerves, but that tingle of excitement as well.”
Not only would becoming a pro bring new challenges, but it would land Copeland a place in the history books. She would be one of the first professional women boxers in the UK, blazing a trail for other women.
“It was very much in its embryonic stage then. I was only the sixth pro UK female to get a license, so it was an exciting time and I wanted to be part of paving the way for the next generation in our sport and making a pathway into the pros for other generations who didn’t have the Olympic platform, like I didn’t. I felt that was something that was worthwhile doing and committed myself to that.”
And commit herself, she did.
Copeland brought her brainchild, the Pave The Way charity, to life. Through her charity, she challenges gender stereotypes, so that everyone can reach their career potential without those barriers. Her past experiences with inequality and discrimination in the sport had sparked the determination in her to change the future for others and ensure that they didn’t miss out on reaching their dreams, like she did.
“I’ve got a lot of other passions outside sports, but I’ve always had a massive passion for using sport for good. I think it’s one of the most powerful things on the planet for making a difference to people and I’ve been privileged to see that happen many times throughout my career, going to the refugee camps and doing sport with the kids there, running sessions for the homeless in America in a juvenile detention centre, and then obviously, doing a lot of stuff with schools and community groups here in the UK.
“They’re very different environments and very different situations that people are in, but the common factor is that sport can have a huge impact positively on people and it’s great to be a huge part of that and make that happen, it’s just such a privilege.”
Back to reminiscing on her sporting career and Copeland was back in the boxing game, this time as a pro. She made her professional debut in her hometown, Manchester, in 2017.
She recalls: “It felt surreal, because as a little girl I dreamt of boxing, but with it being illegal, I never actually thought it would be possible, because it wasn’t at the time, so to even imagine being a professional boxer, let alone boxing at all, was beyond my dreams really. And yet, there I was in my home city, with all my friends and family who supported me, stepping out as a real, professional boxer, about to have a professional fight. It was just so surreal, it felt very emotional.”
Since her return, Copeland’s career was on the up. In 2018, she made history again, as she became the first British female boxer to win a Commonwealth title, after she defeated Mapule Ngubane in Zimbabwe.
“You put a lot of things on hold in your life when you put sport front and centre, like your career, earning money, all those sorts of things. Women’s boxing isn’t something that provides a massive living yet, not for most of us anyway, so all of that you’re putting on hold and to feel like it’s been justified for that one incredible, euphoric, unmatchable moment when you win a title like that, it’s relief, because it feels like it’s all been worth it.
“I felt immensely proud that that hopefully was going to become something that many women to come would also be able to do.”
Yet, throughout her sports career, she has worked full-time. Even in the build-up to the Commonwealth Games, Copeland worked in a school, where she continues to work part-time now, as well as working as a presenter at BBC Radio Manchester.
“During the year that I had my burn, in the build up to surgery before the burn, I did these 28 positive days, where I had 28 days’ notice for the surgery. So I did one thing positive every day to remind myself that, yes it was gutting that I wasn’t able to compete, but you could still do lots of positive things. So, I did school visits, sessions at community clubs, and one of the things I did was apply to be a BBC sports reporter.
“A couple of years after, the opportunity arose to be part of presenting the news shows. I didn’t know if I’d be any good at it, or if I’d be able to do it, but I think it’s important to say yes and then be open to learning and feedback. It’s something that I really love and it’s just a great job, particularly during the pandemic I think local radio has been important to lots of people who’ve been isolated, or feeling quite lonely in lockdown, so I’ve felt privileged to do it at this time.”
But despite leading an active life filled with outstanding achievements, Copeland was constantly battling a secret fight with her health.
With 12 broken bones and nine surgeries under her belt, combined with advanced osteoarthritis setting in, it became clear to Copeland, 39, that it was time to call it a day on her boxing career.
“Any injury I’ve ever had, I’ve never thought about the long term, I’ve simply thought, ‘how quickly can I get back to competing?’ And that is all I cared about. This time is different, because it was the third time it had happened in 12 months where I was back on crutches.
“Each time I’d come back, it had been harder, and I guess I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get back to that level and I never ever wanted to fight without being at my very best, because it’s important to respect the sport, because it can be dangerous, but it’s also to represent women’s boxing in particular, not just boxing, because we can be judged more than our male counterparts. It’s important for us to be at our very best and if I couldn’t be, out of self-pride and because I was representing the sport, I wouldn’t do that. So, knowing that I would never be at my best again, it wasn’t really an option.
“It’s a matter of time now, waiting for major surgery for my long-term mobility. So, by adjusting my activity, I’m going to buy myself more time and that’s going to be important for the rest of my life.”
Although she’s no longer physically in the game, her heart and her influence always will be.
One day, when the sport is truly equal and women are treat the same as men, the work of Stacey Copeland will be hailed as a major factor for making the once impossible become reality.