aging · weight lifting · athletes · fitness · boxing · strength training

Want to try powerlifting or boxing? Let Quill inspire you (Interview)

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!

boxing · fitness

Goodbye to Newsgirls (the place)… the community lives on

Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club posted this on their Facebook page this morning:

“Today is our last day in the gym and we are inviting you to come down and have a turn at painting over the Newsgirls logo on the wall behind the ring. It’s a slightly dramatic ending but to us it’s more of a ritual of closing down one fort and moving towards another equally special playground for hitting things.

1pm

CBC will be in the house.
Please wear masks and practice social distancing.
Prepare to be shocked when you walk in the gym, it’s not as pretty as it used to be.
Hope to see you out,
Coach Kapow!”

You can read about the closing here: ‘Everybody was crying’: After 24 years Canada’s first all-female boxing club has closed. COVID-19 was the sucker punch.

It’s sad. It’s the end of an era. But it’s not the end of Newsgirls even though the physical space is no more.

Coach Savoy says, “It’s not the end of Newsgirls,” she said. “Newsgirls has a strong foundation and a lot of community support … we will get back on our feet.”

She’s got plenty of ideas, and a few jokes — maybe she’ll start a motorcycle gang! For now she’s teaching pay-what-you-can classes in a park and looking out for whatever might come next.

“I can always find people to help out,” she said. “When you have access to a strong community there’s so much you can do.””

Guest blogger and Newsgirls member Sarah.

I loved boxing when I gave it a try at Newsgirls during my Toronto based sabbatical four years ago. I’ve always planned to go back.

Sounds like I won’t be going back to the same location but I’ll be tracking down Coach Savoy. See you then Kapow!

advertising · athletes · boxing · fitness

There are no words

That’s what a friend said when this ad appeared in her Facebook newsfeed.

She’s a boxer so the targeted ad sort of makes sense.

Except not. Her words: “What even is this?” Boxing gloves for women who want to protect their manicures.

I can’t imagine her getting her nails done and needing her boxing gloves to accommodate that. I mean, there aren’t many women who box and I’d guess there’s an even smaller number who box and who get fancy fingernails.

Niche product.

And gender is a very weird thing.

That’s all I’ve got to say.

boxing · fitness

Sam puts on boxing gloves and starts learning how to punch

 

image

If you’d have asked me a year ago I would have told you that boxing definitely wasn’t my thing. Hitting people definitely isn’t my thing.

But times change, people change, and I might just actually like it, a little bit anyway.

Three things got me wanting to give it a try.

First, there were Rebecca Kukla’s posts about boxing. See here and here. She makes actual boxing, not even just boxing training, sound fun.

Second, Sarah trains at News Girls and they’ve been in the news a lot lately. See Leslieville gym empowers women, inside and out: Club helps domestic violence survivors find new strength with practice on a punching bag. See Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club offers free classes to trans people and abused women and Toronto Women’s Boxing Club Plans To Crash Pro-Rape Rallies.

Newsgirls is an amazing place. See my favourite quote on normative thinness above. No other gym I’ve ever been in has that kind of thing on display.

I asked Sarah what she likes about boxing and here’s what she said,

There’s a lot to love about boxing. It doesn’t have a steep learning curve at the beginning. After just a few instructions to make sure you don’t hurt yourself, you get to hit things!

The hitting part is fun and surprisingly cathartic. But there’s a lot more to boxing than just throwing punches, and learning and refining both striking and defensive techniques, regardless of whether you ever plan to box competitively, could easily be a lifelong challenge.

And that’s another thing I love about boxing. It’s easy to change the intensity of your workout to suit how you’re feeling on any given day. I love that people of all different ages and abilities box at Newsgirls. I think that says a lot about how fun and approachable boxing can be!

Third, I’ve got a very practical Aikido related reason. My training in Aikido is being hampered by my inability to hit people seriously. Yes, Aikido is a gentle martial art. Yes, all the moves are defensive. But when you’re training, one person has to be the attacker. For the techniques to be effective you have to try to strike the person who is practicing the technique with some speed and force. Many of the advanced techniques don’t work if you just go through the motions of pretending to attack your training partner. You know, where your fist stops shy of where they are standing. Maybe, you don’t know that. But I do. I blogged about it about my struggles with uke’s role in this post about training with the brown belts.

(Oh, and then there’s this: 3 Great Reasons Women Over 50 Should Take Up Boxing — ASAP)

So last Sunday I found myself learning how to wrap my hands and punch various kinds of things.

I enjoyed the blocking session best, perhaps because it had the most in common with Aikido. I discovered I have martial arts instincts. A couple of times I took people off balance and I found myself thinking of the next Aikido movie I’d perform. I also don’t have the instinct I had when I started Aikido which is to back up. I’m good at moving into an attack. (Backing away is how people being attacked by knives end up covered in the stab wounds. Getting close to the person, giving them less room to work with, is better but harder to do.)

Punching itself will take work. Lots of work. But I’ll go back and keep at it.

Something must be working. I hit a black belt yesterday, right in the gut. According to club tradition, he owes me $5.

boxing · Guest Post · training

Part 2: The Fight (Guest Post)

Last week, Rebecca Kukla wrote about her prep for her first officially sanctioned boxing match. See “Part 1: Getting ready for my first sanctioned boxing match.” That left lots of us on the edge of our seats, wondering what happened! Well here’s part two. Enjoy!

by Rebecca Kukla

Dan arrived the morning of the fight, which was a very good thing, as I wasn’t allowed to do any working out other than stretching that day and I was far too nervous and uncomfortable from dehydration to do anything else. We spent a few hours hanging out and catching up and trying to help me unwind. Finally, that afternoon, we headed over to Gleason’s for the big event.

I knew, vaguely, that the event was a benefit for something that had sounded benefit-worthy, and also – very unusually – that all the boxers that night would be women. I did not understand that it would be a gala, with piles of fancy food and pass-around amuse-bouches and free foofy drinks. The event was a benefit for Save a Sato, which rescues street dogs in Puerto Rico. This was a group I was very happy to be supporting, but it was heavily gendered as well, as animal rescue organizations tend to be. So the gendering of the space was complex: there were a few of us boxers roaming around nearly-naked, getting ready to be as violent as we were able; there were ever-growing crowds of high-society women in evening gowns and expensive jewelry; there were a handful of fully-clothed down-to-earth dog-type women from the foundation itself; and finally there were a small minority of men, most of whom worked for the gym or were trainers or partners.

I felt acutely self-conscious as well as overwhelmed by the noise and the party atmosphere, not to mention very hungry and thirsty. I was desperate for the weigh-in and the medical exam to be over with so that I could eat and drink (though I’d be on Powerade and energy bars, not champagne and shrimp-and-coconut toasts with sprigs of fennel). Dan and I claimed a small corner of the back of the gym with a well-worn little ring and a single chair, where I tried to hide and wait for my trainer, Delvin Tyler, to arrive from DC. I needed his advice, his reassurance, his help warming up, and his paperwork, without which I could not fight.

We claimed the space successfully, but hiding was impossible. Every time I started to warm up, photographers swarmed me and popped flashes in my face, intensifying my self-consciousness and my impostor syndrome. At one point I was pulled over for a photo session with my opponent in front of a sign reading ‘No Ordinary Girls’ – the official name of the event. Debbie proved to be a fast-talking firecracker with a heavy New York accent who weighed in at 97.5 pounds and was completely adorable. Another thing I hadn’t realized was that Debbie was fighting for the ‘home team,’ representing the charity and wearing its shirt. She was also at her home gym. This was not good as far as crowd and judge sympathy went. I was desperate for Delvin to show up.

But when he did, the whole thing became a comedy of errors. Debbie had been presented to us as having one fight behind her, a loss, but we found out last-minute that her actual record was 2-2; this was not a fight that Delvin would even have let me accept if he had known. I had the wrong boxer’s passbook – I need a masters’ book (since I am over 35), not a regular one. One of the glitches I can’t even put in this blog post as it was patched up under a seal of secrecy. Delvin’s coaching papers were nowhere to be found and the computer listed his status as expired even though he had renewed it in person just for this purpose. I had non-regulation body jewelry that I had to remove, including one gauged tragus piercing that no one could get off: not the doctor, trying a variety of tools, not Delvin or Dan, neither of Delvin’s two other boxers who had showed up to watch and support us, and not even any of the random pierced partygoers who I approached for help. Each of these roadblocks seemed like it was about to keep me out of the ring altogether, and I was near tears. The staff was infuriated with me for all the glitches. A passbook for me was jammed together with a bunch of sticking tape last minute, as was my ear.

Sonya "The Scholar" Lamonakis, punching in a boxing match. Opponent up against the ropes.
Sonya “The Scholar” Lamonakis, in the pink.
In a dramatic development, we found out that Delvin would not be allowed to officially coach me because of the paperwork snafu; instead I would be coached by Sonya ‘The Scholar’ Lamonakis, the 5’7”, 220-pound Harlem public school teacher who was the reigning Women’s Heavyweight Champion of the World. I shit you not. The new plan was for Delvin to sit behind her and pass messages to her that she could convey to me during the fight, but I wasn’t allowed to turn around and look at him or anyone else who wasn’t officially in my corner (who knew?). I thought that Sonya was just going to coach me as a mere formality, but as soon this arrangement was settled, she jumped in full-throttle. She grabbed the mitts and finished my warm-up with me, grudgingly telling Delvin through her irritation that I was ‘well trained’ (ha! score one Delvin and score one me). She also proved to be a dead-serious and deeply skilled advocate for me once I got in the ring. I am a little bit in love with her.

In yet another narrative twist, I found out just before getting into the ring that I could not use the 10-ounce gloves I had picked and trained with. As a geriatric fighter, I had to use the gym’s giant 16-ounce gloves that were basically pillows the size of my head. I was not used to them at all, they slowed me down, and I had no ability to judge what counted as an opening with them on. This also did not bode well.

The evening wore on and fell increasingly behind schedule. Strange events I could hardly process occurred, such as a flaming jump rope demonstration, an auction, and some sort of synchronized boxing show involving women in matching outfits. I hid in my corner. At long last I was weighed, examined, wrapped, head-geared, mouth-guarded, giant-gloved, and it was time to fight. Mine was the first bout.

the fight captured over webcam. Rebecca punching Debbie, Debbie back to the ropes.
The fight, captured over webcam.
Frankly, during the fight I was in an altered state of consciousness and I hardly remember it. It was a three-round bout. Almost everyone was screaming for Debbie, though I could hear my little team calling my name. I came out slower than I would have liked, overwhelmed by the giant gloves and the noise, but by the end of the round I felt like I was controlling the ring and had Debbie on the run. She punched more than I did, but her punches glanced off me, and mine felt more precise. Looking at the video now I realize it was an aggressive round but I couldn’t tell that at the time. I also couldn’t tell at all whether I was leading or losing. During the break, Sonya told me to be more aggressive, that I was more powerful and shouldn’t let her out or back off. I heard Delvin and Dan and my boxing friend Shannon shouting the same from behind me, though I couldn’t look at them. I obliged and gave it all I had in round two, and I dominated the round, chasing Debbie to the ropes repeatedly and plunging through her punches and going for her body. When I made it back to my corner, Sonya told me I had won round two, that round one was up for grabs, and that I needed round three to win. Unfortunately by round three I was mentally exhausted and somehow tied myself in knots over the double knowledge that a win was both within reach and by no means a given. I started thinking too hard and slowed down just when I shouldn’t have. The round was still close, but Debbie definitely had the edge.

In the end they called the fight for Debbie, although it was as close to a tie as could be. I strode across the ring to congratulate her, and apparently I looked so intense that her coach thought I was coming over to beat someone up and rushed out to stop me. But honestly, I was (and am) delighted to have nearly tied and won one round solidly against a fighter with so much more ring experience, and given the crowd an enjoyable fight. And I certainly did that! I have to say, tiny and middle-aged and intensely aggressive, Debbie and I were big crowd-pleasers.

RK6
Debbie’s coach trying to stop me from what he thought was my imminent attack post fight. I was actually coming over to congratulate her!
A lot of people from both sides seemed surprised that they had called the fight for Debbie; their sense was that I had won the first two rounds and lost the third. I am not sure if this is right. To me, the fight looks like a dead tie, and I really do understand that if it was a tie or even quite close, it made sense to call it for the person who represented the charity and the gym. Or maybe she won fair and square by a narrow margin. I am not sure and don’t care much; I held my own against a five-time fighter in a disorienting crowd after a chaotic day. I am intensely proud and happy with how I did. And she’s already asked for a rematch in November, and I intend to beat her unequivocally then!

I honestly don’t remember getting out of the ring or back to my corner, or who removed my gear. My son (who also boxes) called from Florida, where he’s spending his school vacation with his dad, to congratulate me and tell me what I’d done wrong – he’d watched on the live webcam. I felt fine and energized until about ten minutes after the fight ended, when I suddenly realized I was about to throw up and pass out. I lay down on the floor trying not to submit. Just then Debbie came over and we had a fantastic bond over how much fun we’d had and how close the match had been, and that pulled me back to consciousness.

Lying on the floor because I had to.
Lying on the floor because I had to.
RK3

Rebecca with her trainer Devlin, looking relaxed and happy post-fight.
Me and my wonderful trainer, Delvin Tyler, finally relaxing post-fight.
My little team lingered at the gym until everything was shutting down, and then headed out for (more) celebratory drinks. Over the course of the evening, as we had more alcohol, Delvin’s take on the fight progressed from “I think it was close to a tie, but you maybe should have won,” to “WE GOT ROBBED!!!” shouted loudly and repeatedly in a bar under the Brooklyn Bridge. I don’t think anyone got robbed. But I am so grateful for Delvin’s enthusiastic and generous support, not to mention his incredibly skillful training, which got me within ten months to the point where I could get in the ring against a fighter with a decade of experience and make it through with pride.

Post fight: Rebecca with her trainer, Delvin, and her partner, Dan. Dan in a white suit, knows how to dress for a boxing match.
Me, Delvin, and Dan post-fight. Dan knows how to dress for a boxing match!
On the train home the next morning at dawn, I noticed I had a small but dark bruise over my left eye. I don’t remember when I got it; I didn’t feel any of the punches that landed on me at all. I heal fast, and I was sad to notice that the bruise was gone three days later. It’s almost like none of it really happened.

Watch the fight here: