Sports coverage tends to focus on major league teams, but every day in Toronto people make fun (and sometimes wacky) activities an important part of their lives. Sporting Goods looks at some of these.
In a sweaty basement gym on an industrial strip of Carlaw Avenue, a group of women are learning how to punch hard and punch right. This is the home of the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club, a women-only, trans-positive gym that promotes women’s boxing as a way to get healthy and feel strong.
The gym has around three hundred members, and at least four thousand women have come through the club since Savoy Howe started it in 1996. Howe began teaching women’s boxing classes out of the Unitas Athletic Club, moved to Sully’s Boxing Gym, and finally found space for the Newsgirls at 388 Carlaw, where the club has been since 2006.
The space looks like any boxing gym: a playground of speed bags, heavy bags, skipping ropes, and scattered cardio machines, with a boxing ring in the middle. The walls are covered with posters, newspaper clippings, skipping ropes, motivational phrases, and photos of women boxers.
A beginner’s class starts with skipping, push-ups, and an ab routine, followed by a tutorial on how to hold your wrists and wrap your hands. Women spend the second half of the class punching different bags, taking a break every two minutes on the buzz of a boxing bell. Howe sends each rookie home with a list of thirty-three “Boxing 101” skills to learn over the course of the introductory lessons.
Howe is a down-to-earth devotee of the sport who has fought fifteen times in the ring. Her experience has not turned her into an evangelist for the sport; instead, she frankly explains why it might be better to know how to punch someone without hurting yourself, or how to take a hit without falling over.
Not all the women at the gym are competitors—most come to learn the basics of the sport while keeping in shape and having fun. But for some athletes, boxing is just the sport to take their bodies to a new level of fitness. These women train with strict dedication, changing their diets and hitting the gym three to four times a week to prepare for a fight. Newsgirls member Anna Von Frances calls this the sport’s “work until you’re dead kind of appeal.”
Some women have their first fight after six months of training, while others can wait up to two years to feel safe and ready in the ring. Many compete in one of the club’s two annual “Fight Factory” events. Von Frances had her first chance in the ring at last Friday’s “GirlFight,” a sold-out, six-bout event to raise money for Nellie’s women’s shelter organized by Pink Mafia at 99 Sudbury.
The club’s training has paid off: Newsgirls members scored six medals at Canadian nationals in 2010. As Howe put it, “We’re pretty serious about what we do.” Howe even felt a few of her competitors were good enough to compete at the women’s boxing trial for the London 2012 Olympic Games, but unfortunately they were over the thirty-four-year-old age limit. (Older women can still compete at the local level: one bout at last Friday’s “GirlFight” featured a forty-four-year-old fighting a fifty-two-year-old.)
Despite this success, women’s boxing is still under-recognized; Howe says she often meets people who think that women’s boxing is a brand new thing. This can be frustrating for long-time competitors, who routinely have to deal with the assumption that women can’t be good at a combat sport. “Sometimes I think the boys think it’s going to be a cat fight,” says Howe, “but after men watch women fight at a club show, they seem to gain a new respect for female fighters. Often after the show I hear comments like, ‘Wow, those women were really good, they’re actually better than the guys.'”
As a female fighter, Von Frances has found it frustratingly difficult to gain full access to the sport. While she has always felt comfortable at her co-ed gym (“the men aren’t there watching some girl aerobicize while she’s texting on her cellphone”), it simply isn’t designed for female competitors. The weight machines, the kidney belts, the change rooms—the entire gym was set up with men in mind. “That’s why places like Newsgirls are so important,” says Von Frances. Women can use the right equipment, and, more importantly, can find an athletic community, with the opportunity to spar with women their own size and skill level instead of having to train with men.
Beyond boxing, the Newsgirls gym is a place where people can feel safe and welcome. The club has planned a movie night, a family day, and a knitting group, and recently entered two teams into a bowling fundraiser for the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre. Through the Shape Your Life program, the club teaches boxing to over two hundred female and trans survivors of violence. The Newsgirls have also partnered with the 519 Church Street Community Centre to provide eight weeks of boxing classes to the trans community.
Howe hopes to continue reaching out to the trans community after the eight weeks are up. “Trans people don’t get a lot of physical fitness because some of them would never walk into a male-dominated gym,” she notes, adding that it would be great if the club could get a second washroom to accommodate the trans population.
Learning how to let off some steam can make a substantial difference in the life of a woman who has been taught to be passive, or who has been the victim of abuse. Empowerment in women’s boxing “happens naturally,” says Howe. “I’ve heard a number of women say that they’ve gotten more out of one class than three months of counselling.”
Howe tells the made-for-a-movie story of one woman who came to Newsgirls through the Shape Your Life program shortly after she had put her five-year-old child into the temporary care of the Children’s Aid Society (CAS). “After three classes, she realized that she was a beast,” says Howe. “She went back to CAS and asked for her kid back.” This woman went on to win gold provincially, and a silver at nationals. “It’s pretty goosebumpy,” says Howe about the transformation women can experience through boxing. “Sometimes I have to go into my office and get a tissue. It’s pretty amazing.”
Those who are interested in the gym can show up at any class (including a Sunday co-ed class) with gym clothes and a water container. The gym’s full class schedule is posted on the Newsgirls website.
Photos by Nancy Paiva/Torontoist.