Kristy Harris: “Boxing gave me a purpose because I was so lost and heading down the wrong track. It gave me a purpose and it gave me an identity.”

Kristy Harris: “Boxing gave me a purpose because I was so lost and heading down the wrong track. It gave me a purpose and it gave me an identity.”

Thanks to the modern-day wonders of Zoom, most of my recent interviews seem to have been with Australian fighters. The boxing scene in the land down under is finally changing in a positive trajectory. A once struggling nation now has a thriving boxing landscape, and while there is much progress still to be made, things are most certainly on the up.

When the Zoom connects with the latest chosen subject there is always that slight apprehension when you interview a fighter for the first time. But with each passing Australian fighter the worry eases. From experience, they have many things in common, talking is extremely high on that list. I can safely add Kristy Harris to the talkative roll call of fighters I have had the pleasure of speaking to. But equally, they have a rare passion for their sport in common. Like many, they do it because they want to not because they have to. And they all impress in different ways.

The Australian amateur elite spent the tail end of last year in Sheffield preparing for what should have been been the world amateur championships in Turkey. But in these troubled times, nothing is certain, the rising Covid cases saw the women’s side of the tournament postponed until 2022 much to the obvious disappointment of Harris:.

“That was so disappointing because I finally had something to work for after all these ups and downs from the pandemic and then just being stuck at home. I’ve been boxing and travelling around for 10 years and then all of a sudden you are in the one spot and just stuck at home. Obviously, life was very different for everyone, but then I was super excited and then disappointed when the championships got cancelled. So I started looking around for other tournaments and then I found the one in Spain and the coach said let’s do it.”

Sadly, again due to Covid reasons, Harris and the rest of the Australian team didn’t get to compete in Spain. A sign of the times maybe, but still incredibly frustrating for a team who have suffered more than most due to probably the toughest Covid restrictions in the world.

But Harris has proven qualifications in resilience and overcoming adversity. The recent setbacks are nothing new and will only harden the fighting spirit of the flyweight hopeful. The harsh and unrelenting restrictions the Australians have had to endure hit fighters especially hard. Training in solitude, the likes of Harris and others have had to adapt and make use of what they have at their disposal. Harris told FightPost it was a little home invasion that helped her through the early stages of the pandemic:

“I am like regional in Australia. I live in Geelong with my parents still, which is about an hour from Melbourne so we are classed as regional. I set up a good little gym in my shed, I pretty much transformed my dad’s shed into a gym. I got a lot of help from my state institute of sport they helped me purchase a lot of the equipment. I just started doing my training at home. I used to hate training at home because my home was my switch off place from boxing, but now I love it. And then we were able to get exemptions to go and train with my coach when we had actual tournaments coming up.”

It was a little taste of bribery that helped Harris into the world of boxing. The initial entry was one of hate, but with a financial incentive from her dad, hate gave way to a passion:

“I was about 14 when I started boxing. the guys who built our house owned the local boxing gym. It was a super old-school gym it was like a family down there. My dad had done karate but he was now doing boxing just for a bit of fitness. He always loved training and it helped him with mental health as well. I always loved training, I played basketball I did a bit of judo and other things but I wasn’t a massive sportsperson I just loved the training. My dad wanted me and my brother to go down so I said alright I’ll give it a go and see how it goes. I hated it at the start. I walked in and you have this bag in front of you for 3 minutes and if you don’t know how to throw a combination you just feel silly.

“I was actually quite timid and shy at that age as well and boxing has definitely helped with that. My dad probably just wanted his daughter to learn a little bit of self-defence, so he said if you come down to the gym 3 times a week for 3 weeks straight I’ll give you 50 bucks, so I said alright. But by the end of that 3 weeks when I had learned to throw a few combinations and then I started to love it. Then my dad was my first sparring partner and it sort of took off from there.”

Despite a start in boxing which needed money to be exchanged, her first signing on fee, to get going, her progress was rapid:

“It took off really quickly. My first coach Mick, who sadly passed away in 2011, I had 3 fights with him. And then his son Kev, who part-owned the gym he then took over. Mick, he made me train flat out for two years before I had a fight. He put me through this brutal circuit or we would run or do whatever. I started to get more serious when I was 16 or 17. When I was 18 I did some sparring a couple of hours away because Mick said I was finally ready to fight. In my first fight I stopped the girl in the 2nd round and then in the next fight, I stopped my opponent in the 1st round. From then I was on the Victoria State team and then I went to my first National tournament. So it happened quite quickly but it was hard for those two years and I see why he did it now. He wanted me to not just win but to win well. In boxing, if you are thrown in too soon you can get disheartened or you could get hurt. And it taught me the power of being persistent as well.”

Harris found herself competing in the 2012 world championships after just 8 bouts. But probably her proudest moment was when she became the first female fighter from Australia to compete at a Commonwealth Games. Harris outpointed the Kenyan Christine Ongare to create a tiny slice of history. But an incredibly important one:

“Yeah, it was awesome just making a little bit of history. it was the first-time female boxing came into the Commonwealth Games. We had a team of three across three weight divisions and that was really exciting it was really huge for me.”

But while the success has been constant, Harris has missed out on two Olympic Games. It is still one dream yet to be realised for the likeable Australian. Injury and more recently Covid and resulting qualification issues have prevented Harris from competing in an Olympic Arena:

“It was a month before the world qualifier for the 2016 Olympics I had a stress fracture in my hip. I was running on it and the impact of running made it worse and with the weight cutting, I didn’t have enough nutrients in my body to build my bones. I was on crutches for the majority of that preparation but I still did get there and I still fought. I won the first fight and I think I won the next one but I lost after that and didn’t qualify.

“For the last Olympics, I was all good. I fought the number one seed in the qualifiers, and my coach will say the same, I thought I got over the line, but I didn’t get the decision. I was happy with my performance so I thought all good, I’ll reset and go to the world qualifiers which would be my second and last chance to qualify. But they got cancelled and they went off the international rankings but my ranking points were mainly at 54kg and not 51kg. I still haven’t looked back to how close I was but that’s why I didn’t get to go to the last Olympics in Tokyo.”

The dream is still alive, and one Harris isn’t quite ready to let go of just yet. With ambitions outside of boxing, including furthering her singing talents in her band, and a body that needs a gentle touch to help it repair and heal, Harris, a one-time world championship bronze medalist, is level-headed enough to know Paris might not be a viable option for her. With a busy 2022 ahead, Harris will decide her fighting future later this year:

“I’m not too sure about Paris yet. I am going to see how I go this year, but potentially I will. I am just going to see because life is so unpredictable and eventful. There are other things I want to do as well. I love boxing but there are other things I want to achieve. Being an elite athlete consumes your life that is all good because it is all worth it. But I will see how I go this year with the world’s and the Commonwealth Games and then decide.

“The body is a big reason. I have a history of poor bone health basically because of poor nourishment and being too skinny. I’ve also had several injuries over the years. I am very accident prone, the coaches nicknamed me ‘car crash.’ Because I have broken both my legs, the mechanics of them stiffen up. One of them I had three surgeries, ten injections and lots of physio because it was such a bad break. So there is a lot of scar tissue and they are very stiff. I have to be very cautious about what lies ahead for me. When you are young you think you are invincible, but you put your body through a lot. It is part of the sport but I am managing a lot of different injuries. Sometimes you have to think about the repercussions ahead because of what you are doing now.”

Boxing has saved many a wayward soul. The stories always differ, but the sport seems to draw people in and offer them something that was previously missing from their life of trouble. Harris definitely falls into the category of a rebel without a cause. But her behaviour was a mask for something far more deep-rooted:

“I’ve always suffered from mental health and it is in only the last few years that I have learned so much more about it. It has now turned into a passion for me. I’m studying psychological science, it is genetic on my dad’s side of the family quite a lot so there are a lot of mental health issues there. When I was younger it was mainly social anxiety problems. That led me to binge drinking so I could be around people. I struggled to socialise unless I was drinking. That just started this spiral into bad behaviour and bad habits when I was younger and I can honestly say it was thanks to boxing that I pulled myself out of that. I think it was around that time when I was 16 or 17 and I was sick of the scene I was in and what I was doing. I was obviously not coping with my anxiety and depression very well. I knew I needed to do something and I just shifted my release and energy into boxing. I used to wake up drunk and feel 10 times worse. I always felt boxing was something beneficial to do, I loved it and I said just stick with it because you have found something you love.”

Any form of exercise is well-known to have benefits in dealing with mental health issues. Tablets are handed out like confetti at a wedding without trying to address the inner demons. The easy treatment isn’t always the best treatment. Many times, it isn’t a treatment period. Harris understands this better than most:

“The science of mental health and physical exercise is massive. A lot of the time when people have depression they are just handed tablets. It only takes a 15-minute steady walk and your symptoms of depression and anxiety will decrease. Boxing gave me a purpose because I was so lost and heading down the wrong track. It gave me a purpose and it gave me an identity.”

Harris is a Lifeline Community Custodian an initiative that helps remove the stigma from mental health and promote the positive aspects athletes and sport can bring to their communities. It is a project that Harris is extremely passionate about:

“I always promote get out there and exercise. Thinking about it now I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t start boxing. It’s amazing what it can do for you. You don’t have to be the best at something but just getting out there and doing something can create so many positives in your life.”

At times boxing can get a bad reputation often with must justification. But it can do so much good, Harris is living proof of that. It remains to be seen how long Harris has left in her sport. The fragile body will need a little patience and undoubtedly will say enough is enough at some point. But her story might still have a few more chapters to write, the Paris Olympics are close enough to be considered or even a professional career if the body can hold out a little longer.

But once the gloves are cast aside, Harris seems destined to be a success elsewhere. After that shaky start to her life, with many choices, her story should have a happy ending. She owes boxing plenty, that 50 bucks was a sound investment and now looks like a priceless one.

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