Why Nicola Adams doesn’t let the pressure of being seen as a role model get to her: "Only you can judge what you see in the mirror"

Olympic champion boxer Nicola Adams talks to Prudence Wade about her retirement from the sport, being a role model, and taking care of her mental and physical health.

Nicola Adams followed her groundbreaking boxing career with appearing on Strictly Come Dancing. Picture: PA Photo/Mikael Buck for Smart Energy GB.

Like so many elite athletes, Nicola Adams found herself somewhat adrift when she retired from boxing.

After a wildly successful career as a double Olympic champion with an undefeated professional record, Leeds-born Adams hung up her gloves in 2019 after suffering an eye injury – and she admits the period of time that followed was “a struggle”.

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Now 38, Adams had her first fight when she was 13 and became very used to following gruelling training schedules and precise diets, and found food one of the trickiest things to navigate with her new-found freedom.

Nicola Adams in action.

“Once I retired from boxing, there was a point where I wasn’t used to being able to eat what I want, because I had such a very strict eating regime,” she admits.

“To go from that, to trying to find a stable, healthy way of eating has been quite challenging for me. I’ve finally found a way to say it’s fine to eat what I want and stay healthy.”

For Adams, a big part of this journey was unlearning some of the preconceptions she had about food.

“I didn’t like the concept that whenever you wanted to eat something that was nice or more indulgent, it was classed as a ‘sin’ or it was a ‘cheat meal’,” she says thoughtfully.

Nicola Adams after winning gold at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA

“I don’t like those kinds of phrases – it was like I had a bad association with food.”

Adams admits she’s tried lots of different types of diets in the past.

“As soon as you veer off slightly, that’s it – it goes out the window.”

But now she’s “spent a lot of time fixing that association with food, and being able to say it’s fine to eat what I want”.

She’s keen to share this new mentality with others, in the hope it’ll help people realise “they don’t have to feel guilty” for eating certain

things.

Adams – who has teamed up with fellow fitness stars Greg Rutherford, Kelly Smith and Mr Motivator to support Smart Energy GB’s new ‘Energy Fit for the Future’ campaign, encouraging us to get smart meters installed in our homes – might not be training for the Olympics any more, but she still has a boxing mentality and exercises six days a week.

Now though, she can have a bit more fun with her workouts.

“I like to mix things up,” says Adams.

This means doing “a bit of everything – weights, running, the cross trainer” – and prioritising her recovery with hot room yoga.

She’s constantly playing around with gadgets and technology to help boost her performance, too.

“I use heart rate monitors – everything. I have an app on my phone that checks my heart rate while I’m sleeping.”

Adams keeps up a regular workout routine for her physical and mental health, and it’s not the only thing she does to stay mentally strong.

“I meditate as well, guided meditation. I’ve done that all my career, I find it very relaxing.”

Apps like Headspace and Calm might be a dime a dozen nowadays, but back when Adams took up meditation, “not many people did it”, she says.

“I started off quite small, sometimes it’s very hard to keep concentration in the beginning. So I started off with one or two minutes, and then built it up so now I can meditate easily for two hours.”

And after a long session, she says she feels “unbelievable. It’s like having sleep, but being awake at the same time”.

Talking about mental health is something that’s become really important to her.

“It’s definitely something I’ve thought about through my career, but even more so recently, especially with the way a lot of people have been struggling with lockdown and coming out of lockdown,” she says.

“It’s important to me, because I feel like it should be an area we do talk about, and it’s not something you should be afraid to talk about. If you’re not OK, it should be OK to say you’re not OK.”

This is hardly surprising for the boxer, who’s been keen to raise awareness around the causes close to her heart throughout her career.

“It just feels nice to be able to give back,” she says simply.

Adams is one of the UK’s most visible black lesbians, and is often considered a role model for the way she constantly breaks boundaries.

Last year, Adams and Katya Jones made history as the first same-sex couple on Strictly Come Dancing but had to withdraw from the competition early after Jones received a positive Covid-19 test result.

Asked before the series began why she requested to be paired with a woman, Adams said: “Just for diversity I guess. And I wanted to do something different and I didn’t see what the big deal would be with pairing with another female, you go to nightclubs and girls dance with girls all the time, professional dancers dance with girls all the time, so I don’t think it’s a big deal.”

She added: “It’s really good to be able to show diversity for the younger generation as well to be able to see somebody from the LGBT community.

“They might be as well, so it’s nice for them to be able to think to themselves, ‘That could be me one day, dancing on Strictly’.”

After the disappointment of their enforced withdrawal from the programme, they returned for the finale of the show for a special performance.

Last month, the couple were nominated for the British LGBT Awards for its Media Moment prize, against the likes of Channel 4’s acclaimed drama It’s A Sin which explored the HIV/Aids crisis in 1980s London.

The winner of the award will be announced on August 27.

Speaking today, Adams says with characteristic ease that she doesn’t let the pressure of being perceived as a role model get to her.

“I don’t think about it,” she says with a good humoured laugh.

“I just do what I do. It’s humbling to be looked up to in such a way, but I always remember that I am me.

“I don’t see it as added pressure or anything.”

She credits this calm and confident demeanour to her role models and mentors growing up – particularly her coach, Alwyn Belcher, who she says helped “build my confidence and turn me into the person I am today”.

So what was some of Belcher’s advice that’s stuck with Adams?

“Only you can judge what you see in the mirror – don’t let other people judge you,” she reveals.

And that’s why she wants “to be able to give back to other people, and show them they don’t have to worry about being judged as well”.

Boxing career started by chance

Nicola Adams grew up in East End Park on the edge of Leeds city centre and got into boxing by chance.

She told the Yorkshire Post in 2017: “My mum was going to an aerobics class and she couldn’t get a babysitter for me and my brother, so while she went to aerobics I went to the boxing club and absolutely loved it.”

The club, in nearby Burmantofts, became a second home for Adams.

“Some of the people there went to the same school as me and I made a few friends. I just loved the training and when one of the coaches asked if I was interested in doing competitions I said yeah, I’ll give it a go.’”

Her first bout was in a working men’s club before the smoking ban and said her lungs “were burning at the end of the rounds”.

Nicola Adams is part of the Get Britain Energy Fit For The Future campaign, encouraging everyone to help modernise our outdated energy system by getting a smart meter. For more information, visit smartenergygb.org/energy-fit-for-the-futureSupport The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you'll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers. Click here to subscribe.