Natasha Jonas: Blazing a trail for female fighters
Liverpudlian has high hopes of being one of the first women to win an Olympic boxing medal, she tells Robin Scott-Elliot
Around lunchtime today, Natasha Jonas will duck between the sparkling white ropes and skip across the bright blue canvas of a boxing ring erected within one of the soulless halls of the Excel centre in London's Docklands. There will be just a handful of officials and organisers watching. If she retreads the route next summer there will be substantially greater interest; her small steps and a giant sporting leap for womankind.
On 5 August 2012, female boxers will take to an Olympic ring for the first time and Jonas is favoured to be among their historic number. "It's a huge step forward," says Jonas, a slight, softly spoken Liverpudlian, of her sport's inclusion. "The participation has grown since the decision was made [in 2009]. Everything is just getting better and better."
Today she fights Queen Underwood, the American former pipe fitter who won bronze at last year's world championships, in a tough opening bout as part of a three-day event designed to test out the venue ahead of next year's Games. It is an enticing taster for Jonas, who cites Sugar Ray Robinson and Manny Pacquiao as her fighting inspirations, of what could lie ahead; could because there will be only one British fighter per category and Jonas has to earn selection from a tight, tense three-way tussle.
Three weight categories have been included in the schedule for the women's Olympic debut – flyweight, lightweight and middleweight. Jonas fights at lightweight, 60kg, having dropped down from the non-Olympic 64kg category. Amanda Coulson and Chantelle Cameron are competing with Jonas for the sole spot and if Jonas, the only one of the trio involved in the test event, impresses over the the next three days it will be a significant advance towards winning selection for the world championships in March and so sealing the coveted Olympic place.
"It means everything," says Jonas. "For any amateur athlete the big goal is to be at the Olympics, and then to win a medal. People don't realise that you train four years in a cycle – they just see the eight minutes in the ring. It's been a long hard graft and it will mean everything to be there, especially in London."
Her words are nearly drowned by the sound of two of the men's team sparring in the ring behind us. British boxing, for both sexes, is considered to be in a good place. "We are very positive going into 2012," says Dave Alloway, one of the British coaches. Jonas is among his charges. "She is a pleasure to train – very receptive, easy going, wants to learn," he says of the 27-year-old southpaw. "This is her opportunity to push her claim on the 60kg spot. With three girls on the team going for one place sometimes the sparring can get a bit heated but that's understandable. They all want to be that person who goes to London 2012."
Self-belief is a necessary part of a boxer's make-up and Jonas, twice a European champion, has a quiet assurance about her, although she does briefly admit to a "few nerves" when she occasionally allows herself to imagine stepping into an Olympic ring. "I like to think I am No 1," she says, "and a good win here will cement that."
Jonas's first serious sporting dalliance was with football. She played on the right wing for Liverpool and England Under-18s. It was in an attempt to lose weight that she turned to boxing. She used to train in her uncle's gym, where she also tried out karate, and somebody suggested she come along to a females-only night. "Six years later here I am," she says.
"I've always participated in a lot of team sports. Boxing's more personal – every time I get in the ring, even though I've good support staff and coaches I go back to, I like the thought that it's all about me. I like not having to rely on other people on the outcome of a performance.
"As kids we were always encouraged to do sport. My mum wasn't that shocked [when she took up boxing] because I'd played football before and always been a bit of a tomboy. My nan worries about me getting hurt but she's of an older generation. She has come to see me and she knows I can look after myself. I've not come across any prejudice [about women's boxing]. I know it's there but the only reactions I've had have been positive."
Alloway too dismisses the doubters "Women boxers have fought long and hard to get to the Games – they have proved they should be there," he says. Jonas trains alongside the men's team at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield. "We are all one team," adds Alloway.
This weekend marks the start of an increasingly intense few months for all Olympic contenders. If Jonas can prosper among a field that includes world silver medallist Cheng Dong – Alloway rates the Chinese as the biggest threat to a British medal next year – it will open a route to the world championships in Chongqing in March, and from there the path to London and that bright blue ring will begin to become clearer still.
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