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WATCH OUT BOYS

Olympic hopeful boxer Hannah Beharry is facing tougher opponents outside the ring than in it. She chats to Sara Oldham about sexist coaches, choosing training in the park over nights on the tiles and following a dream that no one encouraged her to believe in.

“I don’t understand the whole size zero thing. I actually did my own market research in the gym recently, asking guys if they fancy girls that are that thin. They said no! It’s actually quite disturbing. Why do women feel that to get more confident they have to make themselves disappear?” she says. In contrast, Hannah’s honed body is a muscular machine, capable of crushing her opponents, and her confidence has grown as her fitness has improved. Her aim has always been to fight and win - not to look good in a new cocktail dress.

Hannah Beharry is hopping from one foot to the other, announcing that, although it’s nine in the evening, she’s finding it hard to keep still. She’s sparring with her coach, but it took a while to even get as far as the inside of a boxing gym. The first coach Hannah ever met took one look at her and laughed at her. “I went to him and said I wanted to learn to box. He told me I should be cooking and cleaning, not fighting,” she says. This comment may seem unbelievable

Whilst Hannah has achieved a lot of this herself, she did manage to find a coach who was willing to help her fight. She found Vahead through the same gym that had rejected her, but her training was to be a covert operation. “I went to Vahead and told him what had happened with the head coach. I said I’d pay him to train me in the park. He thought I was crazy, but we did it. Outside in the snow, rain and freezing cold weather, with people laughing at me, we trained and trained.” Then, when Hannah was ready, they went to show the head coach what she’d achieved. “He literally begged him to see me. I was really nervous. I thought, he’s just going to throw me out of his gym again. But he was blown away when he saw me fight.”

“If you tell yourself you can’t do something, you won’t be able to do it. But if you tell yourself you can do it enough times, you’ll make it happen,”

He still didn’t support her 100% though, and Hannah was aware of this. “I was losing fights because I didn’t believe in myself,” she remembers. Hannah was battling with the fear that she couldn’t do it, and the fear of being seen as bigheaded if she got her confidence back. In the end she looked at herself in the mirror and gave herself a pep talk that any boxing coach would be proud of. “If you tell yourself you can’t do something, you won’t be able to do it. But if you tell yourself you can do it enough times, you’ll make it happen,” she says. Hannah believes her advice can be heeded by lots of women, whatever their goal. “Everyone should look in the mirror and think, why should it be any different for me than anyone else? You can do anything you want to. I really wish more women would believe that,” she says.

to those of us who don’t encounter sexism in our day-to-day lives, but Hannah inhabits a traditionally male world. Until this year, female boxing wasn’t even recognised as an Olympic sport, and some high profile people in the industry would like to see it relegated again. Hannah’s used to the comments, but she doesn’t take them lightly. “A well-known coach, Frank Maloney, was mouthing off only recently, saying girls don’t belong in the ring. I shouted at him to put his money where his mouth was and come to watch me train. He never did come down,” she sighs. This kind of reaction only increases Hannah’s fighting spirit. When Hannah left that first gym five years ago, she made a pact with herself. She wasn’t just going to box, she was going to become the best female boxer in Britain and fight at 2012. “I thought, I don’t even know how to box, how am I going to do this? I didn’t even realise women’s boxing wasn’t an Olympic sport then!" she laughs. Words by Sara Oldham Photography by Tom Medwell http://www.tommedwell.com

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At the time, Hannah was completely different. “I was overweight, always partying, taking drugs and getting into trouble. I had nothing going for me. But when I decided to start boxing, I stopped going out, and went to the gym instead,” she says. Nowadays she looks toned and taut, and it’s inspiring. Body image is something Hannah feels strongly about.

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Hannah’s now training with Haringey gym, which is very supportive of female boxing. Tonight, she’s continuing a gruelling training programme in preparation for a team GB Olympic selection event this weekend. She’s determined to fight at the 2012 Olympics. And, when you think of what she’s achieved in the last five years, it’s hard to believe she won’t make some more waves before then. Feeling inspired? Hannah coaches boxing for beginners at Edward Woods Community Centre, 60-70 Norland Road, London W11 4TX, 020 7603 2324


Hannah Beharry