Punching for a greater cause: Local boxing club empowering women through sport

Sports Sports | Lifestyle

Head Coach Ellen Connor has been inspiring women in and out of the ring since founding the club in 2016

Image by Adrian Dunkerson

Olivia DeLuca sways to the tune of blasting rap music in the corner of the boxing ring, waiting for head coach Ellen Connor to summon her into action. 

A group of six girls stand inside the red and black coloured ring, taking turns sparring with  partners. Posters of Manny Pacqiuao and Muhammad Ali are lined throughout the walls of the club. No more than 10 feet from the ring, a door is held open by backpacks and duffle bags, allowing a breeze of crisp, Pacific Northwest air to fill the gym. 

A lady in sweatpants is running on a treadmill, and a pair of women take turns hitting a speed bag while the six women in the ring rotate in and out after one-on-one single minute sparring sessions.

Standing just outside the ropes in a navy blue correctional officer’s vest, hands wrapped around a stopwatch, Connor shouts, “Annnnnd… time!” The sparring women, one over 40 years old and another just 13, stop without hesitation and Connor calls DeLuca to the ring.

DeLuca taps her pink gloves together, fist bumps her partner, and Connor starts her watch. As the two circle each other, DeLuca’s father, Paul, calls on DeLuca to keep her right hand up. DeLuca throws one punch, then another, and ducks after her partner responds with a jab to the right side of her head where DeLuca’s right arm should be. 

“Right arm up!” Paul calls from outside the ring. Connor looks down at her watch, but before even half a minute is up, Olivia’s headgear protecting her ears and face falls off. Connor calls off the session and picks another girl to spar. Olivia huddles in the corner with her father, and Paul places the red headgear back on his daughter’s face — tightening the straps ever so slightly. Just above Olivia’s shoulders, a sign reads “West Coast Wonder Women.” 

When Connor first stepped into the boxing ring at the age of 40 to help cope following a tough divorce, this was the group of people she wanted to empower through sport — women, young or old, who may lack confidence, self-esteem, or a sense of belonging in today’s society.

“The whole [idea of] believing in yourself, I wish I would have found it when I was 16,” says Connor. “We know through studies that girls at the age of 13 aren’t active anymore, and why is that? They have body image problems, they have self esteem [problems], and all those things are factors. And how do we change that? If [boxing] changed my life at 40, think about what it can do to 10, 12, or 13 year olds.” 

Connor fought in four matches when she was 40, but after training for countless bouts, she found there was a lack of women for her to fight and decided to try coaching — becoming a certified level one Boxing Canada coach. 

“These teenagers think they have to be something that they’re not,” says Connor, about the impact social media has on the confidence of today’s youth. “To be grounded, and to know who you truly are is a gift. That’s why I’m motivated to do bottle drives, and sell hoodies, and do whatever I can to have a non-profit so we can apply for grants and get people to support us, because I want to give all these girls a voice.” 

She started to offer boxing classes at the local Sooke Health and Fitness club gym, but in 2016 Connor was tired of renting space at the gym and leased out a building across the street to start the Sooke Boxing Club. 

“I took a total gamble, but I didn’t have that belief in myself until I had fighting,” says Connor, who also works as a corrections officer at William Head Institution. 

For the past four years, Connor has grown the boxing club and established the West Coast Wonder Women —  a division of Sooke Boxing Club, and non-profit club that hosts an annual all-female boxing card. 

There are just five all-female international boxing cards around the world, including the West Coast Wonder Women, and Connor got the idea to start her own after watching a similar event in San Francisco. Last year, 74 boxers from around North America travelled to Vancouver Island to take part in the card, which was up from 58 in 2018. 

Depending on where they live and their respective schedules, the athletes participate in four training sessions a week in either Victoria or Sooke. In Victoria, the women train at Forge gym downtown on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. On every second Sunday of the month, the training sessions will rotate between Sooke and Victoria so the entire group can get together to train. 

For Olivia, a 15-year-old student from Belmont high school who joined the West Coast Wonder Women last June, finding the sport has helped strengthen her bond with her father — who boxed professionally in the United States and Canada. 

“I’ve wanted to do boxing for so long,” says Olivia, dragging out both ‘o’s’ for extra emphasis. “No one else in my family boxes anymore … I’m the only person in my family that genuinely loves it still, except for my dad.” 

She also credits the group and sport for giving her structure, and conviction to stand up for herself. 

“We (my dad and I) were mainly drawn to this place because of the character of it overall, and it’s mostly run by females so it gives you empowerment,” she says. “Outside of the ring, it gave me more confidence to stand up for myself, rather than just let people walk all over me.” 

Paul emphasizes that he never forced the sport on his daugher, but is thrilled how boxing has helped her both in and out of the ring. 

“I’m proud of her regardless, and she knows that,” he says. “I said if you just want to come down here and train, I’m fine with that. I’m just as proud of you if you’re going to get into the ring or not. It doesn’t matter to me just as long as you’re doing what you’re doing and applying it to all aspects of your life: sleep, you’ve got to go on road runs, eat good, do your homework, and make good choices.” 

Back inside the ring, Olivia sways to the music with her headgear securely fastened, eagerly awaiting her turn to practice. Connor calls on Olivia to re-enter the sparring session. She fist bumps her partner again, and says, “I promise it won’t fall off again,” with a smile. 

Connor hits start her yellow stopwatch, and watches the two teenagers square off in the ring. She compliments Olivia when she holds her right hand high, and corrects her when it starts to sag. Connor allows them to spar for 30 seconds over their time, before calling the session to an end. The two embrace in a long hug. 

The West Coast Wonder Women annual all-female boxing card will take place June 26-28.