For International Women’s Day, we’re inviting Gympassers to share stories of how they’re crushing stereotypes and challenging expectations.
Julia McNicoll is an Operations Coordinator on the Gympass Wellness team. Keep reading to hear how she discovered boxing and the impacts the sport has had on her life.
I never played or even thought about sports as a child. My parents (at my own request) sent me to ballet, tap, jazz, and Scottish highland dancing classes from a young age. I was under the impression that sports were a thing for the “lads” and that I was much better suited for a more “girly” activity. I remember ONCE trying to join the boys for some football at our lunch break and I broke my wrist straight through both bones. That was the start and finish of my sports career before it had even begun.
I loved dancing but when I left university in Scotland, leaving behind the comfort of the dance society that I knew and loved, I stopped dancing altogether. I couldn’t find a studio that I was 100% happy with when I moved to Madrid, so I tried some classes at the gym and running.
Unfortunately, neither of these activities inspired me to keep them up for very long. Eventually, at the age of 24, I thought about taking up a sport for the very first time; that sport was boxing.
To this day I am not entirely sure how it got into my head because I didn’t know anyone who had been boxing before. I also don’t know why I thought to try such a “masculine” and “aggressive” sport, taking quite a radical 180 from my dancing background. I do, however, remember that I played the song “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran to my students (while I worked as an English language assistant) so that they could fill in the gaps of the missing lyrics. In the music video Ed and a girl are seen training in a boxing gym together, my only hunch is that this music video was what planted the seed. (I’m not even a big fan of Ed Sheeran, but he somehow had quite an impact on my life).
I went on a tour of several boxing studios, from a boutique-style one in a posher part of town, to some really rough-and-ready boxing gyms where I’ve never felt more intimidated. I was left to my own devices in the corner, punching the bag without any clue what to do. I even remember seeing Miriam Gutiérrez, a female European lightweight champion, training in the ring. I remember being both equally terrified of her and impressed by her sheer strength. I didn’t know who she was at the time, but I thought “it would be quite cool to be able to defend myself like she can”. When I saw her face on a poster a year or so later, I immediately remembered having seen her in one of my first ever training sessions.
In the end, I chose the boutique-style studio, mainly because the trainers were super friendly and they took me to the side of the class to give me a really detailed explanation of the correct technique. This was fundamental for me coming from a dancing background where technique is drilled into you from day one. I found boxing was quite like dancing, moving your arms and legs in coordinated motions, learning a routine of jabs, uppercuts, hooks, etc. and harmonising this with a partner or a punching bag.
The instructors at my boxing gym didn’t often take girls very seriously but when they saw how quickly I picked it up, they were quite impressed and pushed me to learn harder moves, be stronger and faster. They would partner me with some of the strongest guys in the gym to push my limits. However, some of the guys would complain or roll their eyes about being partnered with a girl which I found quite annoying and disheartening. It was that feeling that would push me to punch harder, duck faster and push them to their limits rather than the other way around. I found it satisfying to break the stereotype of boxing being a man’s sport and to leave these judgemental male partners at my gym completely speechless.
I always had strong legs from ballet, but I quickly developed quite “masculine” muscles on my shoulders, back and arms. Some of my friends and colleagues started making comments about not wanting to mess with me or that I was “built like a bull”; but the truth was, growing these new muscles and feeling so strong gave me a sense of empowerment and a level of body confidence I had never felt before. I may not have the stereotypical “feminine figure”, but after years of striving for it and never feeling satisfied, I realised that whatever it is that makes you feel your most confident is a feminine figure.
I want everyone to enjoy this same feeling. I have encouraged several female friends to start boxing too, and when I am partnered with newer girls at the gym (some who have literally said “please not her, she’s so scary”), I make sure to adjust the level accordingly, encourage them to get the routines right and to enjoy the sport with me, instead of feeling scared; just like I had been seeing Miriam in the ring that first session.
Some may think that boxing is a typical man’s sport and that it’s crazy that someone like me would enjoy it so much, but I feel that I have challenged this stereotype. I have tested a lot of the male boxers at my gym over the years and encouraged other women to have the confidence to try, and I hope to continue pushing these boundaries and empowering other females as I go forward.