As soon as the International Olympic Committee made the 2009 announcement that women’s boxing would be included as a medal sport at the 2012 Games, Mary Spencer was already widely thought to be Canada’s best bet for gold. The 27-year-old Windsor, Ont., native has had a near flawless record since she began boxing 10 years ago, winning three world, nine Canadian and five Pan-American championships. Spencer’s success in the ring has made her the face of female boxing in Canada, and soon she’ll also be the face of a national CoverGirl campaign. She spoke with Canadian Business production editor Mai Nguyen.
Weight/Height: 160 lbs/5’11”
Career Wins: 124
Career Losses: 8
Pounds Gained to Qualify for the Olympic 75 kg Middleweight Division: 20 lbs
Year Canada Last Won Olympic Gold in Boxing: 1988 (Lennox Lewis)
Most girls don’t dream of becoming a boxer. What did you want to be when you were a kid?
When I was younger, I wanted to be in the NBA. But when high school came along, basketball was just something I played for fun. It wasn’t as aggressive as I would have liked. If I had a chance to play football, I definitely would have, because I liked the full contact. All the sports I played in school were physical, but you were never supposed to get too physical. So when I had the chance to join the boxing club in high school, where you’re supposed to actually hit a person, that felt great. Not that I was an aggressive person or a crazy kid or anything, but I always thought that I would do well in a full-contact sport. Maybe having an older brother had something to do with it.
Since boxing is such a high-impact sport, do you worry about the long-term toll it takes on your body?
You can’t do something like this for 10 years and not have it cross your mind. A lot of people will spar without headgear to show how tough they are, but I’m always wearing my gear. For me, I feel that defence is one of my strengths. I really focus on not getting hit, but at the same time, of course you’re still going to get hit. To actually dwell on the fact that there’s a chance of getting seriously hurt, I don’t do that.
Describe to me the game plan. How do you prepare for each opponent?
My coach looks at their strengths and weaknesses. One plan that sticks out in my mind was my very first world championship [in 2005], when I fought the defending two-time world champion. She had a really big overhand right that everybody walked into. They couldn’t see it coming. It was pretty sneaky, and she fought a lot of really good people at that tournament and beat all of them because they couldn’t get away from her overhand right. My coach’s game plan was very simple. It was to move to your right so you’d be moving into her left hand, and it would make her throw her left hand instead of her right. Her right would miss because I’d be moving away from it the whole time. It made it extremely difficult for her because her best weapon was her right hand, and I took it away from her. A lot of people probably didn’t understand why she couldn’t hit me, but most of the coaches saw there was a strategy.
This is the first Olympic Games for women’s boxing as a medal sport. Do you feel any pressure to bring home gold for Canada?
[Laughs.] You know what, it’s not exactly pressure. I realize that everyone expects me to win gold, but at the same time, I expect the same thing for myself. If I was going into the Olympics with a mindset that I’m just going to do my best, then I would probably feel pressure—but I’m not going there for anything but gold.
You talk about wanting to break the stereotype that girls can’t fight. Have you experienced discrimination?
For sure. During the summer of 2008, when there were talks of us being included in the Olympics, a lot of people from our own organization said it was not going to happen—that too many countries don’t want to see women’s boxing, that it’s never going to pass. If there was even a 1% chance that we were going, these people should’ve been saying, “Hey, there’s a great chance. Go and train.” A lot of us had it in our own minds that we’re going to train for the Olympics anyway—and good thing we did, because six months later, the IOC let us in.
And now, in addition to competing in the Olympics, you’ll be featured in ads for CoverGirl’s makeup line.
It was a huge surprise. It came out of nowhere. One thing that I thought was really cool was the amount of attention that my sport is going to get. A lot of people who maybe wouldn’t come across any boxing club advertising or who wouldn’t turn on the Olympics to watch boxing will see the CoverGirl ads. It’ll do the same thing for the sport that the movie Girlfight did 12 years ago.
How do you reconcile being both a fighter and a cosmetics model?
Most people just see me as a boxer, and that’s totally fine. I’ll do interviews straight out of the ring, and I’m sweating, there’s Vaseline on my face, and that’s what I do. But a lot of people are unable to connect Mary the boxer with Mary the woman. I’m a fighter. I go into a ring. It’s a battle between me and another woman— but at the end of the day, I can put on some makeup and be normal like everybody else. I think it’s kind of neat.
You’ve also been working with aboriginal kids for the past two years to start a fitness club in the Cape Croker First Nations Reserve where you grew up. Why is that important?
I always thought that I wanted to go back to the reserves and start a boxing club. I was planning to teach a bunch of different sports, but when I asked the kids what they really wanted to do, they said boxing. Perfect! I really just wanted to spark an interest in physical activities and give them more access to sports. Now we’re waiting on the construction of the club.
How do you unwind?
I get one rest day a week and it’s Sundays. I usually go to church, socialize with friends, clean my house, read books. Right now, I’m reading The Madwoman of Bethlehem. When I’m tapering, I’m really trying to just get completely away from boxing and mellowing out.
There’s got to be a shelf life for boxers. When will you know it’s time to stop?
I’m not really concerned about the shelf life. If I’m supposed to stop boxing and do something else, I would put more time into community work. But I’m not going to make that decision based on people telling me that I’m punch-drunk or that my body is breaking down. I’m going to hang up the gloves when I know that the direction in my life is changing.