The AARP got in touch with us recently with an awesome video of Quill Kukla talking about the way powerlifting and boxing, both of which they took up in their mid-forties, transformed them. I had the pleasure of connecting with Quill recently to talk about the short video, called “Tiny Teacher Transforms into Badass Boxer.” Before I get to our chat, here’s the video:
Don’t you absolutely love it? Quill has blogged for us before about their boxing career, about discovering that they excel at powerlifting, and also their running. Over the years, their posts reveal a common theme of being amazed at what their body can do and of doing activities that they feel good about. And that’s just the sort of message about movement that we promote, endorse, and celebrate here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue.
Here’s the interview, more or less verbatim with streamlining (but no misrepresenting!):
TI: I know you had some reservations about watching the video. How did you feel when you watched the video and saw yourself doing these amazing things?
Quill: It’s complicated because the pandemic has been a really rough time. I’ve continued training in both boxing and lifting throughout the pandemic. But it’s not the same kind of training that I was able to do or the same level of intensity that I was able to do before the pandemic. And because my background life has become so much more sedentary, even aside from my training I feel as if I’m not in the same fighting shape or competitive shape as I was a year and a half ago, and it’s daunting to think about getting that back, so it’s a little bit bittersweet to see myself at my peak. But at the same time, they did a fantastic job editing it. So I really do look awesome!
TI: You said when you first went to the gym you were “undermotivated.” Why did you feel undermotivated?
Quill: I think there are really two separate reasons. One is that very early in my life I was a serious ballet dancer. That was central to my identity. And when I quit dancing I really just quit the life of the body cold turkey. My way of separating myself from the dancing was just to say “okay, I’m not a person who does physical activity anymore.” I was never in bad shape. I always walked a lot and biked and walked my dog, so I had background fitness, but I wasn’t somebody who had structured exercise as part of my life. So it felt like a part of my identity that I had cut off from myself and put into my past.
But the more interesting reason is that when I first went to the gym I went because I felt like I had a responsibility to “get fit.” Fitness was just the goal. I wasn’t trying to learn any particular skill or get better at any particular activity or take anything as an artistic practice or techné. I was just trying to increase my fitness. And for me that’s a very boring goal. It was an amorphous goal that I resented and it didn’t have any shape for me. And so when I started lifting and boxing and not “trying to get fit” but trying to get good at lifting and good at boxing, then that was my motivation because I loved those activities and the fitness came along for free. Fitness in and of itself is not a good motivator for me. In fact I kind of find it depressing. When you find something that you inherently love. If you happen also to get fit, then fantastic. But you’re doing it because you love that thing.
Ti: You talk about the “empowering thrill” of boxing. Can you say a bit more about that?
Quill: Part of that is literally chemical or hormonal. There’s a jolt of hormones that goes through your body as you punch something full speed [here Quill punched their left fist into their right palm to demonstrate] or as you lift something really heavy and make that max effort. It’s invigorating and good for your brain to feel those hormones coursing through. But also, it does feel empowering. I don’t think of boxing as self-defence at all. If I ever ran into someone in a dark ally who wanted to hurt me and I were to say “okay, punch me between here and here” [gestures to forehead and torso] boxing is not a useful skill in that circumstance. Being able to run away is a much better skill than being able to box.
So it’s not empowering in the sense that I’m going to use it for self-defence. However, it is very empowering to know that my body can take a hit and be fine, and that my body can deliver force if necessary. There is something thrilling in that feeling that my body has force behind it; it is active, not passive. It can impact the world. And moreover, the world can impact me and I’ll be fine. Someone can hit me and I’ll be fine. My body is not fragile.
Plus it’s just really fun punching things [smiles, then laughs, and then tells me they’ll show me how to punch some day].
TI: In the video you express the intention of continuing with powerlifting and boxing for many years to come. How has the pandemic changed affected your training? How (if at all) has it affected how you think about yourself as a powerlifter and boxer?
Quill: At the beginning of the pandemic, when we were in lockdown I couldn’t lift at all for months when gyms were closed. Even at the worst of the pandemic, except for a couple of weeks I have continued my boxing training, meeting people outside. I am back to both now. But taking months off of my lifting at my age was a huge hit to my ability. I lost a lot and even though I have been back lifting for months I’m still not lifting as much as I was before the pandemic. And so part of me wonders if the pandemic just did me in in terms of competition. But I’ll still keep lifting because I like having a strong body.
With respect to boxing, I’m not in the same fighting shape as I was before the pandemic, even though I’ve been training. But that I feel I can get back more easily because I’ve kept my skills up. I do intend to go back to competing in boxing as soon as possible. But my plan is to have a fight in six months or so and to keep going for as long as I can. I’ve watched people fight in their eighties. In fact, I watched a fight between an 88 year-old man and a 91 year-old man — an actual sanctioned amateur fight — and they went through to the end and they were really doing it. And so I have no intention of stopping at any point really [laughs again].
TI: Both powerlifting and boxing are really intimidating prospects for lots of people. What advice would you give to someone who wants to give it a try later in life?
Quill: For lifting–the great thing is the frustrating thing: when you start doing it you make gains unbelievably fast. Your numbers will shoot up really fast in terms of how much you can lift and your body will change almost immediately. There’s almost nothing else you can do where you’ll see such quick changes. The sad part is that that plateaus out fairly quickly. When you start you think “wow I’m lifting 20 more pounds each time I go to the gym! In no time I’ll be lifting thousands of pounds!” Everybody has that feeling. If you can even go once or twice or three times that will be enough that you will see enormous gains. All the intimidation will be gone. So my advice for lifting is “just start.” And it’s one of the absolute best sports for older people to do. There’s nothing blocking older people from excelling at it and it’s also incredibly good for your joints and your bone density. It’s a gift to yourself to do it. Do it a few times and you’ll be amazed at how fast you start getting strong.
Boxing is not like that at all. When you start boxing you’re terrible and it takes a very long time to be anything other than terrible. But people are intimidated by it because their vision of boxing is being in the ring fighting. But there are so many stages between doing nothing and actually fighting. And you can get off and stop at any stage you want.
There’s going to the gym and learning how to punch properly, and punching the bags, working on the bags to get a good workout. Some people just do that forever and that’s what boxing is for them. Past that, you can start doing partner work and partner drills, where you’re not actually fighting with anybody but you’re working with a partner and trading punches. That’s a little more intense than working on the bags, but only one step. So you can do that and stop there. Then some people go from there to sparring, and that’s where you’re actually in real time trying to land punches on a person and avoid getting punched. That’s a whole other level of intense than partner drills, but most of the people who spar never actually fight. And then there’s fighting. So you don’t have to have a vision of yourself as on a trajectory from nothing to fighting. At each stage you can decide if it’s enough for you. That makes it feel less intimidating.
TI: What about just the idea of going into a boxing gym as, in my case, a 56 year-old woman?
Quill: You do have to find the right gym. There are a lot of inclusive wonderful gyms. There are also a lot of toxic crappy gyms. Trial and error could be traumatic, but using word of mouth to find out which gyms are supportive and inclusive is important. But you’d be surprised at how many boxing gyms really are super inclusive and supportive environments.
Boxing tends to be a very intellectual sport that requires a lot of critical thinking, so people who are boxers tend to be very thoughtful. They sort of have to be. Compared to a lot of other sports I find that boxing gyms tend to be very thoughtful spaces. In 2021 most of them have had to think at some point about what it means to welcome older people into the gym, to welcome queer people into the gym, to welcome non-binary people into the gym.
We all learned about boxing gym culture from watching Rocky but the reality of boxing gym culture tends to be pretty different from that. Again, it varies. There are certainly gyms that are nothing but young, toxicly masculine men, but there is a lot of variety, including a lot that have a minority of men as members. It’s a popular sport among women, so most gyms have a lot of women.
Just in the years that I’ve been doing it it’s gone from a male-dominated sport to a not-at-all male-dominated sport. I’ve been boxing with eight women and five men, and I think that’s typical for boxing gyms.
TI: That’s encouraging! Anything else you’d like to add?
Quill: I’m a high-energy, high-emotion, high-intensity person and the difference that boxing made for me in terms of my ability to productively channel and regulate all of that energy and those emotions was absolutely transformative. I’m a calmer person. A lot of people might not realize the mental health benefits as well as the physical health benefits that you can get from doing a sport like this. That might not be true for everyone, but I think it’s not just me.
TI: That’s so great. Thank you!
I’m sure we will hear from Quill again, especially when they get back into the ring. Meanwhile, thanks, Quill! Congratulations on an amazing video. You absolutely do look awesome and fierce. Thanks for the chat and best wishes getting back into fighting form!