When I met the world’s new Featherweight World Champion female boxer I didn’t expect to come away so inspired, or having to question my own subconscious prejudice.
If she hadn’t been standing next to a man with ‘Coach’ on his tracksuit, I would have assumed Ornella Wahner was an adidas intern on her way to the gym. She doesn’t look like a female boxer that could go ten rounds with you. She could though, it hadn’t taken me long on YouTube to work that one out.
Of course, by searching for a stereotype I have already failed to avoid prejudice. In the ring this would have cost me. The outcome of judging this book by its cover: It would dance round you until your arms dropped, then knock you flat on your back.
A female boxer in a 'male' sport?
The popularity of women’s boxing is increasing, but it is not yet mainstream. At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics there will be a record number of amateur female weight classes, but the TV coverage and earnings of professional men and women is incomparable.
Since moving from athletics to amateur boxing as a young girl, this 26-year-old has won German and World Championships in the ‘up to 57kg’ category. Face to face with Ornella, I want to ask if she has faced prejudice trying to be successful in a male dominated sport, yet I feel nervous. I don’t want to assert my cliché onto someone who seems so positive. Her answer reveals I am both right and wrong. The challenges were much subtler than people simply telling her to quit, her school didn’t support girls doing her chosen sport:
Now, at least female participation in the sport is officially recognized, but does the subtle bias remain? It seems we are still just judging books by their covers:
This question lights a fire in her eyes, and I can understand why. Imagine being thrust in to the limelight as a young female athlete just because you fit the press stereotype of a poster-girl. Suddenly your looks are being commented on as well as your sporting performance.
“It was difficult of course, as I wasn’t as confident back then. Standing in front of the camera and talking, then reading things about yourself – it was weird. When I read something negative, I thought about it much more than I do now.”
The role model we need
A strange sense of pride wells inside me for the achievements of this young woman that I have only just met. I think of my own young daughter and how I want her to grow up free of judgement. Sadly, the numbers of girls dropping out of sport suggest a different reality.
It feels like Ornella is exactly the kind of role model that is needed, so what would she say to a young girl who loves sport but is worried about how she looks:
“When you’ve reached a point where something makes you happy, then you shouldn’t care about who says what about it. The most important thing is that you yourself are happy, that it fulfills you.”
Whenever we talk about boxing I see excitement twinkle in her eyes. She clearly loves the sport, but I want to know how she maintained her positivity all the way to a World Championship gold medal.
“At the World Championships (Delhi 2018), I wrote a diary – a few things in my life that I’m grateful for, and what I needed to do each day to reach my goal. My goal was to become world champion, so I wrote that down every day. Even on a rest day I wrote down ‘get some rest, take my vitamins, go outside, make someone laugh’.”
As her physical strength ebbed away over the days of the competition it was this positivity that helped her triumph.
I leave the interview feeling like Ornella’s positive outlook has rubbed off on me. She is clearly still writing chapters of her story, but it is not a script bogged down by prejudice. I suggest you look right past the cover and prepare for an uplifting read.