We met Ruth two years ago at Fight For Peace where she was coaching boxing 3 evenings a week. Fight for Peace is an organisation helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds learn a combat sport and teaches them skills alongside to help their career prospects. Originating in Rio, Brazil, this organisation forms a supportive network for many young people, providing a safe space to train and to grow.
We spoke again in April this year, and she had taken on the role as Sports Development Officer at the organisation and felt like she had found a job she had the skills for. As a coach her extensive experience both inside the ring and out is amazing for any young athlete to learn from. Ruth is a veteran boxer, starting out when she was 10, she trained out of Peacocks Gym as a Junior. She set her sights on the Olympics, even before a women’s division was announced in 2009, seeing it as the pinnacle of amateur boxing. When women’s boxing was added to the 2012 Olympics, she was picked to be part of team GB. One of the youngest on the team, she was amongst elite athletes in full time training from the age of 17. The team trained in Sheffield, three times a day, 5 days a week. She left suddenly when she was 23, burnt out and devastated at not being chosen for the 2012 olympics. She had been boxing for 13 years at that point, and we spoke, rolled her eyes at her younger self at her own impatience, pointing out that there has been another Olympics since and we are due for one this year (now next year due to Covid19).
The importance of the 2012 Olympics to Ruth cannot be overstated; for her it was the pinnacle of Amateur boxing. This is because it is so hard to get into Team GB and that is before you even get considered to go on to the Olympics. This includes winning national titles, boxing for England, going on camps and then being picked for the Team and staying on the team as part of ‘development’ before you go on to being a potential for the Podium. Then you have to go on to loads of different tournaments and finally qualify for the Olympics at the world Championships. And it only comes round once every 4 years.
She told us she wished someone had told her to be patient, although she’s not sure she would have listened, and it is something she tries to emphasise with her students. “You need to be guided, to be told when to be patient and when to get your shit together.” As a teenage amateur boxer you are expected to be an adult, and Ruth believes that if she had been more in tune with herself, things might have been different.
The experience in Sheffield sounds incredibly grueling. Once you are on the team there is no sense of security, as you can be asked to leave at any point. Only one fighter from each weight is picked to go to the Olympics, but there are 3 or 4 potentials at every weight on the team. So, Ruth explains, you are training with your competition to get that spot, whilst your progress is being tracked. “You’ve got to imagine a pool of boxers, all trying to get to that inch at the top”. It’s worth pointing out that at the 2012 Olympics there were only three female weight categories for boxing. Ruth said that weight cutting is nine out of ten times a science, and for the Olympics they had their work cut out for them. Some of the stories sounded ruthless, with the girls constantly struggling to keep their weight down, wearing a plastic bag in boiling weather and training at a deficit. Not to mention that kilo in water retention you put on premenstrually which you would have to factor into your weight cutting plan. For the next Olympics, now 2021, two more weight categories have been added bringing the total to 5, but it’s still not enough.
After she left team GB, Ruth didn’t turn pro as might have been expected from an athlete at her level. She explained that there was no exposure at that time for females and all the best fighters were amateur. It also involves having a great manager and a good social media presence; most successful boxers are their own PR agents. A friend told her “there are only two reasons you would ever turn pro. You either have to look a certain way, or you have to be the best.” Ruth reckons you’ve got to be a seriously legitimate fighter like Katie Taylor or Clarissa Shields, who will entertain no matter what, in order to have a platform without having to dress up. Ruth believes things are changing with these amazingly high level boxers, but we still have a way to go.
At Fight For Peace, she has been working to bring up the level of the combat sports taught there, which as well as boxing include BJJ, Judo and Muay Thai. Each sport has a different culture, and Ruth sees the importance of that. ‘Boxers are hooligans and BJJ people are hippies. You need to know and respect that, otherwise you are fighting a losing battle.’
They have developed as a boxing club in the last two years and now have excellent coaches who know how things work, and as a result Fight For Peace has had a national champion. With their members regularly competing they also host successful boxing shows and their Judo program is excellent, with competitors winning regularly around the country.
Their boxing team includes two competitive girls. However, Ruth believes that if they want to attract more females, they need to do better; women go somewhere because it is the best, somewhere they know they will be looked after and somewhere well established where there are other females. She is hoping to do this through bringing in more female only sessions, with one day a month with a completely female only presence, including the youth workers.
At Fight For Peace, she works from two angles; the holistic side and the coaching side. The former involves youth work and one-to-ones, helping with education for example getting them onto a PT course, or helping with their GCSEs, the point being to increase their employability. The coaches need to be extremely switched on and filtering that through the whole system. A failure would be a young person coming to the boxing sessions but not going through the mentorship programme as well. The other side is the actual sport, making sure that each sport is to a high level, facilitating a space where all the other combat sports can do the best that they can do. She’s aiming high...“There are these elite places that churn out champions, and you know that if you go there you’ve got what it takes, you will become a champion.” The number of members has been growing and they are in their hundreds now, and there are plans to go out on outreach programmes to reach more young people.
Ruth told us boxing is still always on her mind, whether it is coaching or competing, and that her coach in London is encouraging her to turn pro, but she explained that “it’s different when you have to hold down a job, I was spoilt in Sheffield”. If she did decide to do it, she would need to be 100% and would have to fight really high level fighters, and would feel responsible to her coach and team to perform her best. When she left Team GB, she mentioned that it didn’t even cross her mind to try to return, she understood the severity of leaving, not wanting to disrespect the coaches and team. Ruth seems to have achieved something most people struggle with; to take responsibility for their actions and accept the consequences. The consequence here being the heartbreak of losing the dream she had been working from since her early teens.
All in all, Ruth is a powerful role model who we feel privileged to be able to speak to about her experiences. Nearing her 30th birthday, to us she feels older than her years suggest, her understanding of the pressures that her students are under to perform, knowing what is needed to develop a strong gym with champions, she is well on her way to making Fight For Peace a place of highly skilled amateurs with a supportive network, working to improve the future of these young people.
Ruth has found her way, meandering through her twenties, to be exactly where she needs to be. The flexibility of her role allows more time for training, and who knows, maybe we’ll see Ruth back in the ring.