In “The Level Up,” changemakers in the fitness and wellness industry talk about how they’re making an impact in their communities, from pushing for inclusivity to promoting body acceptance and beyond. Here, boxer Caroline Dubois discusses her journey so far and how her sport can become more inclusive.
Boxing was certainly not an easy career choice for Caroline Dubois. As a child growing up in London, she tried many different sports – running, swimming and gymnastics – all of which were considered appropriate for a young girl to be interested in. But none of them felt quite right. “There was nothing that really appealed to me that made me feel like, ‘This is it, this is my thing,'” the athlete says.
Seeing her older brother Daniel compete in boxing tournaments and return home with big medals, she was interested at the age of 8. we chat via Zoom. “Finally he gave in and took me to the gym for the first time.” After one session she was hooked. “I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t someone want to box?'”
She knew almost immediately that she wanted to turn her passion into a profession. The only problem was that at that time girls and women were barred from boxing clubs in the capital. Determined to get the same quality training as her brother, Caroline posed as a boy named Colin to train at Repton Amateur Boxing Club and eventually found the confidence (with the help of her father) to fight as herself.
Prior to her first professional competition on February 5, I spoke with Dubois about her journey to the top (she recently competed in the Tokyo Olympics and already had a title of Youth Olympic Champion), her thoughts on being a role model, and what can be done to make boxing more inclusive.
You posed as a boy when you were younger to get into certain boxing clubs. Can you tell me about that experience?
The first club I went to was an ameteur boxing club, and many clubs at that time never allowed girls to box. My father took the risk and decided to take me to Repton Boxing Club, thinking that I might try it, but not enjoy it. When I was there, we had to pretend I was a boy. But the third or fourth time I went, I started sparring, and I ended up making a boy cry. From that day on, my father was with me. In every club we went to, he said, ‘She’s a girl and she’s great, just look at her. If you don’t like what you see, we’ll leave and go to another club.” And he said to me, “If they don’t let girls in, I’ll stay with you and challenge them to make sure they let you play.”
I later went to Dale Youth Boxing Club where I met the coach Gary Miguinness. He said, “She won’t be able to keep up, she can’t spar with the boys.” I went in the ring and showed it to him and after that my name kind of got around and encouraged people to give me a chance to see how good I was. Nobody really said anything after that and once I won titles I was hired. The boxing clubs want national champions, people who can win and perform – and they have certainly seen that with me.
Women’s boxing in the UK as a sport was illegal until 1998. Do you feel like you grew up with role models you could hang out with in the boxing world?
Most of my role models in the beginning were men. Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagger, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis. All male fighters, but so good that I respected them anyway. As time went on, the 2012 Olympics — the first time women’s boxing was allowed — featured Claressa Shields and Katie Taylor. Claressa I can relate to. I love her story and that she is herself and that she doesn’t care if people like her or not. That’s who she is. Growing up, there was no one who looked like me in the gym, no one who looked even like me. Claressa has given me a lot of motivation and inspiration because her story is like my story – she was me growing up.
You may also now be a role model for the next generation of female boxers.
It is a responsibility that I must take in my stride. I won’t change the way I am and the way I speak or my approach, but just be myself and, if that’s what people like, then hopefully I’ll inspire them through actions and not words.
How do you think boxing as a sport can become more inclusive for women?
Time, I think. As we see more female fighters on television, putting on big shows and performing in the ring, giving great fights that people are still talking about months and years later – that will make people realize that boxing is an option for their daughters. It doesn’t just have to be running or gymnastics, it can also be boxing.
We’ve seen a few black female athletes in the last few months pioneering positive mental health in sport. Is this important to you as an athlete?
The body is only as strong as the mind. It’s important to take care of yourself and have people to talk to, support you and be there for you, both at your lowest and your highest levels. In boxing, not always the strongest or fastest or fastest or strongest person wins. It is the person who has a balance between all this: fitness, strength, power, skill, brain, boxing IQ. There is a thin line and you have to be very even throughout to always be on top.
What was it like to compete in the Tokyo Olympics last summer?
The Olympics were a great tournament, very challenging and competitive. It’s something I will always remember. I can say, “I did that, I went, I qualified.” Obviously things didn’t go the way I would have liked – I remember coming out of the ring after losing and couldn’t stop crying. It was the worst pain I had ever felt. But it taught me that even at my lowest point, I could pick myself up and just keep moving forward.
You will have your first professional fight on February 5. Do you think it will feel different to compete at a professional level?
I don’t know, I’ve already asked some other people who have turned pro, what it feels like to box in front of hundreds of thousands, or boxing without a headgear. They told me I’m going to love it. I’m looking forward to it and getting ready as much as possible, can’t wait to get started.