Nicola Adams: Boxer who isn’t always good as gold

She is the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal for boxing – but there is more to Nicola Adams than that. Jayne Dawson reports.

IT’S not an unfamiliar story: the kid from the wrong side of town, educated at the school of hard knocks, who takes on the boxing world and, in turn, knocks ’em dead.

It’s Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, and Rocky – all rolled into one.

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And it’s true – sort of – but there is always another version of every story.

In this other version, our embattled fighter wears designer clothes by Armani Exchange and trendy All Saints, is a fan of Paco Rabanne perfumes, loves a vodka and lemonade, and eventually wants a husband and children.

And this version is true as well, for the fighter we are talking about is Nicola Adams, the Leeds born-and-bred Olympic phenomenon.

She is the woman from a council house in Burmantofts who had a prime minister and the wife of a prince on the edge of their seats as, in the space of eight minutes, she both won gold and changed the image of women’s boxing from seedy to sassy. She even threw in an Ali-style shuffle.

Actually, it’s hard not to call Nicola Adams a girl because she has the smooth face and open, gentle manner of a polite young teenager, yet she is 29 years old.

And the clothes spilling, teenager-like, from the red suitcase in the corner of her mum Dee’s living room are actually her Olympic kit, boxing gloves included. Since the chaos of an Olympic win enveloped the family, there hasn’t been time to put them away.

In fact, it’s been a big year for the whole family – her brother Kurtis, 24, graduated with a BSc in sports science this summer, Nicola proved to be dynamite in the Olympic final, and their mum Dee doesn’t know which way is up. She was asked for her autograph recently, and she is still all a-tremble at the memory.

How did it all start? The story goes that Nicola’s Olympic path began when Dee joined a gym and took 12- year-old Nicola and seven-year-old Kurtis with her.

But actually the story started before then, with Nicola’s dad Innocent Adams. It was he who introduced his daughter to Muhammad Ali and The Rumble in the Jungle. Nicola fell for Ali’s charisma, his rhymes and his fancy shuffle but, unlike most girls, she didn’t want to just watch him – she wanted to be him.

And it was because of Nicola’s dad that Dee took her children to the gym that day. The couple had recently split up and Dee was seeking a new interest and a way to keep looking good, in the way newly-single women do.

It so happened that the gym had a boxing ring and – just like that – the chain of events began.

Nicola said: “I was good at it, I was the only girl and I suppose I was the little star, and I loved it. I loved it when people said I boxed like a boy. It gave me a lot of confidence and street cred.”

A routine developed. Nicola went to Agnes Stewart School each day, came home, did her homework, went to the gym, came back home, went to bed. “What mum wouldn’t be happy with that?” says Dee. At the age of 13, her daughter won her first competitive fight. There was a problem though: practically everybody hated the idea of women boxing, and it was another four years before she found a second opponent.

The situation was this: the women’s sport was banned in the UK until 1996. You’re probably wondering why. Well, it was on the grounds that premenstrual syndrome made women too unstable to box.

Nicola talks about this with a look of amazement on her face, as she sits on the sofa in her mum’s house. On one wall is her medal cabinet; on the mantelpiece is the overspill of her trophies; on the windowsill are homely cards congratulating her on her Olympic win. It’s all evidence of her overwhelming fitness to box, and all mixed in with the normal paraphernalia of life – clothes, computer games, dog basket, family photos.

“It’s hard to believe that ban carried on until 1996, and the reason is like something from a hundred years before,” she says. “But women have had to fight for everything – they had to fight for the vote, they had to fight to compete in the marathon, it’s always been a fight.”

For Nicola herself it was a cash-strapped progression from her late teens onwards.

Dee, who worked in retail and catering, somehow had to find the money to fund trips to London for coaching. She spent a lot of time pleading for sponsorship, though none was forthcoming.

However they managed, Nicola carried on winning and carried on taking various odd jobs to make ends meet, from working on a building site to being an extra in TV soaps.

All that ended in 2009, which proved to be a rollercoaster year. In that year, Nicola damaged her back so badly falling down a flight of stairs after, ironically, tripping over one of her own boxing bandages, that she had to stop doing anything and wear a back brace for three months. But she was also finally given funding of £27,000 a year.

“I was on my way to a fight when I fell. I still did the fight, and won, but it turned out I had damaged a vertebra.”

But after that it was onwards and upwards to gold.

“All I could hear in the final was people chanting my name. It was incredible, I loved it, and I loved doing it for my country.”

Now Nicola is a celebrity meeting celebrities and appearing routinely of national television. Alan Carr is her favourite person so far, because he’s the funniest. Does it make her nervous, meeting them all? In a word: “No. Getting in the ring is the nerve-racking part for me, talking on camera is the easy bit. I have never found it a problem.”

As for the future, the two versions of Nicola still co-exist.

Olympic champion Nicola trains in Sheffield with the English institute of Sport, and every day begins with a weigh-in. She has to stay within five per cent of her flyweight category which has a maximum weight of 53.5 kilos or 8st 4lbs. At the moment, she is two kilos over, because that’s what winning gold does to a person.

Then comes a day of early morning runs and training sessions amounting to five hours a day in all.

She shares a flat in Sheffield with two other boxers, Chantelle and Savannah, and finds it easy – though she wouldn’t now want to have to start sharing with anyone else now, she says.

There are three bedrooms, two bathrooms and cooking is never an issue because individually-tailored meals are delivered to the door, all carefully calibrated for the right amount of protein and carbohydrate. But breakfast has to be Frosties, especially on fight days.That cereal goes everywhere with her.

Off-duty Nicola is different though. Then she can be in Leeds or London and, unless a fight is looming, she can enjoy a vodka and lemonade or two with her friends – some of them from school, some of them from the boxing world. She also likes hitting the dance floor – which she is willing to do with or without a drink inside her – to R&B, dance, funk, even a bit of rock.

On quieter Sheffield nights she loves the cinema. As for relationships: “I have had boyfriends in the past but never anyone serious and not for a while, I’m too busy and they kind of get in the way.”

The plan is to compete in the next Olympics and then to do something else in the sport. She sees herself with children and a partner eventually, but for now she is too busy working and playing.

“Really, I just like to have fun,” she says.

Nicola’s ring of confidence

Nicola fought and won her first match at the age of 13 and her second at the age of 17. Two years later she became the first woman boxer ever to represent England and by 21 she was the English amateur champion.

In her 20s, Nicola began to win international titles, bagging a silver at the European Championships when she 
was 24, and winning another silver a year later, this time in the World Championships in China.

In 2009 she suffered the back injury which kept her out of the sport and meant she had to wear a back brace for three months, but in the same year she began to receive funding from UK Sport.

She took yet another silver at the 2010 World Championships – but her career started to turn gold when she won the European Union Amateur Boxing Championships and then came the ultimate victory – the first ever Olympic gold medal in women’s boxing, after defeating number one seed Ren Cancan of China.