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'My mum told me that if I worked hard, then I could achieve anything ... I have always believed in that'

 

Nicola Adams was the first woman to become an Olympic boxing champion. Now an author, she talks to Kate Whiting about her fight for respect and success.

Nicola Adams is one of the sweetest, giggliest, most upbeat people you could ever wish to meet, all sparkling eyes and that famously Olympic-sized grin.

She hasn't got a bad word to say about anyone, least of all her Twitter trolls. "Even if they're saying bad stuff, they've actually still taken time out of their day to write you that, so I guess in a way they're still fans," she says, giggling.

But beneath that bubbly exterior is a steely determination that has seen her become, in her own words, "the most accomplished amateur boxer in Britain that we've had, male or female".

The reigning Olympic, World, Commonwealth Games and European Games flyweight boxing champion, Adams (34), who's now turned pro, became the first ever female boxing Olympic champion in 2012. Achieving Olympic gold was something she knew would happen from her teens, and she retained her title in Rio last year.

Her autobiography Believe distils just how "the baby-faced assassin" was shaped, learning to fight both inside and outside the ring.

It's clear from the book she's her mum Dee's biggest fan and today says her incredible self-belief comes from her.

"She worked so hard, was a single parent, raising two kids and working two jobs to help with funding me and looking after my brother. She always used to say, 'If you work hard, you can achieve anything' and I've always believed it. It shows today, two Olympic gold medals later." Born in Leeds in 1982, Adams (below) showed early signs of physical prowess by starting to walk aged just six months. She grew up on a council estate with younger brother Kurtis, and spent six weeks in New York each summer visiting family, some of her happiest memories.

Despite being plagued with allergies, eczema and asthma, she didn't let them stop her from doing what she wanted.

"I remember being told that, having asthma, I shouldn't really be running around and playing with the other kids, but at five years old, you can't tell a kid to sit down and not play, so I was like, 'I'm not going to do that, I'm going to have fun and try new things'.

"So, I guess I've always had that determined attitude."

When she was 11, her parents separated. In the book, she says it was a relief, as "mum had put up with a lot" and one of her earliest memories was stepping in front of her mum with a plastic sword, aged just three or four, trying to protect her from her father.

The following year, it was her now-single mum who inadvertently introduced her to boxing, when Adams and her brother were dragged along to the boxing gym, where her mum was having an aerobics class, after a babysitter cancelled at the last minute.

She describes it as a "proper old-school, Rocky-style gym, with steamed-up windows". She'd watched all Muhammad Ali's fights on TV with her dad and was fascinated, so when the coach at the gym asked if she wanted a go, she fell hook, line and sinker.

Her first match was in a working men's club in Leeds, aged 13, the room "thick with smoke, which really hurt the back of my throat", but she still won and decided then and there she was going to be an Olympic champion, even though women's boxing wasn't yet an Olympic sport.

Just as things were starting to come together, her mum almost died from meningitis and had to stay in hospital for a month. The experience - on top of everything else they'd been through - made Adams stronger.

"It was really scary at the time, thinking I was going to lose my mum, and she was the only person that I really looked up to and respected," she says now. "It was tough, especially when the doctor said a couple more hours and she wouldn't have been here today, then having to look after my brother as well as myself, get him ready for school and make the dinners, and visit my mum at the hospital. It was really hard."

And then there was the inequality she faced as a woman boxer: No physios, barely any time to train in camps and even having to share kit.

"For the World Championships in China, we turned up the day before, with no time to adjust, or acclimatise to the temperature and then had to box in a kit that your teammate's just worn, so it was all sweaty.

"It was totally different, we wouldn't get training camps on a regular basis, like the male boxers.

"We'd get one training camp two weeks before a major tournament and then be expected to win medals. You can't expect that with that kind of notice, especially considering that for the major tournaments, like the European Championships, you've had no chance to train or diet properly to get yourself into good shape to actually compete."

As part of Team GB in the 2012 Olympics, everything was on a par, but in the women's professional game, she thinks there's "still a way to go" before it's a level playing field.

"The level needs to be lifted a bit, but that's why I'm here now and I'm hoping I can help change the game in the professional side of women's boxing as well."

Over the years, she's also battled with injuries, once ending up in a body cast with damaged vertebrae after she slipped and fell down the stairs of her London flat.

"There were times, especially with my back, when I thought I'd never be able to get back to where I was before," she admits. "I'd been in bed for three months, not being able to move. I was ranked number two in the world. To go from that to nothing was really hard to deal with."

In the book, Adams also describes how she came out to her mum as bisexual at 15, and her mum's reaction was typically "amazing". "She very casually said, 'Oh, that's okay, I kind of knew anyway'."

She recently proposed to Mexican-American pro boxer Marlen Esparza (above), but wedding planning is taking a back seat for now - "We're just focusing on the boxing at the moment" - and next on her list is winning a world title as a professional.

And there's also her budding acting career - she's been an extra in Corrie and Emmerdale and trained as a stuntwoman before London 2012 - and would like to combine acting and boxing some day. Perhaps she could play the first female James Bond?

"That would be cool, I'd have to be the first one wouldn't I? I've been the first on everything else."

  • Believe: Boxing, Olympics And My Life Outside The Ring is published by Viking, £14.99

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