Photo by Will Oliver/AFP/GettyImages
Mary Spencer’s profile on the Canadian Olympic Team’s official website includes her favorite motto: “Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in getting up every time we do!”
The years since the 3-time world champion (2005 and 2008 at 66kg and 2010 at 75kg) and Pan Am gold medalist (75kg) boxer made her Olympic debut at the London games in 2012, where she tied for fifth place, have certainly tested her dedication to that idea, but the middleweight boxer has never shown much interest in staying down for long.
After years of fighting and winning in relative obscurity, Mary Spencer became a darling of the Canadian sports media as she prepared for her—and her entire sport’s—Olympic debut in 2012. Sponsorship deals finally started coming in. She won gold at the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2011. Procter & Gamble named her the face of Cover Girl the following year. But in London, she stumbled. Feeling nerves unlike she’d ever felt before in the ring, she lost to Chinese fighter Jinzi Li in her first match and was eliminated from the competition. In 2013, she lost her spot on the Boxing Canada team to her former friend and current rival Ariane Fortin, which means that she won’t even have the chance to defend her gold at the 2015 Pan Ams in Toronto next month. Her sponsorships dried up.
It sounds like the second act of a great boxing film. “It feels like it for me, too,” Spencer laughs. But she’s never stopped fighting, either figuratively or literally. While her Boxing Canada teammates prepare to step into the ring at the latest edition of the Pan Am games, she’s now working toward regaining her spot on the Canadian Olympic team for 2016. And she’s prepared to fight for gold.
In the meantime, she will be participating in the Toronto games in her own way, both as a torch bearer and a participant in the Aboriginal Pavillion, a 19 day celebration of indigenous Canadian art, culture, and sports that’s been held in conjunction with the Pan Ams. Spencer, who is Ojibway, will be leading boxing demonstrations in the pavilion’s Sports Zone and encouraging young indigenous people, particularly girls, to participate.
Whatever frustration Spencer once felt about not being able to compete are long gone. Proudly sporting a fresh black eye from her morning sparring session at a Toronto coffee shop earlier this week, she says she’s really just looking forward to enjoying a major sporting event as a spectator and volunteer for once. She’s also hoping to check out a performance by trip hop soul singer/songwriter isKwé while she’s there. Spencer is currently the artist’s “Nobody Knows,” a song about Canada’s 1200 missing and murdered indigenous women, as her walkout song.
“Last week, I was thinking ‘I wonder if it’s going to make me feel bad once the games start.’ And I can tell you now, I’m just excited to enjoy the games, I really am. I’m looking forward to being on the outside of the games, cheering on my team, enjoying other events. Stuff like the Aboriginal Pavilion, I couldn’t go and see anything that was going on there, let alone get involved, if I was competing. When you’re competing, you’re at your venue, and you’re at the village resting and doing your thing. So it’s a different experience. I’m happy that I can do this here, in Toronto. It’s kind of cool.”
Spencer’s plan for her boxing clinics is a combination of demonstrations and audience participation. “My coach and I really want to do some really slick looking padwork, just kind of put on a display that really catches people’s eye. Because I remember when I first started, I walked to the gym and there was another female in the gym and she was hitting the pads with the coach and I was just blown away. I was like ‘I want to be like that! It looks really cool.’ So I just want to give the opportunity for other people to look and gain some interest and then teach them some moves and let them get a taste of it. I’m hoping I can expand someone’s horizons.”
Given the role that boxing has played in her own life, Spencer is passionate about giving back and bringing the sport to First Nations communities. “I can see the need for it in our community, the need for outlets the need for positive influence and the need for sport.” She wants to make sure that girls aren’t neglected in this outreach, too. “A lot of times when you look at sport, people automatically think of getting boys involved in sport. I tell you, it’s a great way to just be a role model for these young aboriginal girls that we do it, too, and we do any sport we want. Boxing’s obviously a very male dominated sport and here I am. So I think it’s great that I can be someone for them to look up to.”
It’s not a struggle to balance her volunteer work with her training, she says, because the two really feed each other. “I draw inspiration from this. It’s not me going and being a part of these communities and activities, looking at is as I’m there to inspire people. Believe me, I’m there to be inspired! And so I try and get out there and do as much as I can that complements my training, and doesn’t hinder it at all. I’m still training hard, but I will be inspired at the same time.”
It is this spirit, along with a newfound focus and a dedicated training regimen, that Spencer will bring to the ring as she mounts her big comeback, beginning in earnest this December in Canada when she fights to reclaim her spot on the national team. The next step will be the Olympic qualifiers at the World Championships in April. Then, if everything goes according to plan, she will be off to Rio for the 2016 Olympic games, where she intends to significantly improve upon her debut performance. “There’s a lot more that I need to do as an athlete at the games,” she says.
When asked if she feels like she’s fighting for redemption or a need to prove herself, Spencer responds with a philosophical shrug. “I’m not really sure where the fuel, where the inspiration comes from, except that I’m a competitor and I like to win and when I don’t win it’s disappointing. This is a goal and dream that I’ve had for a very long time and I’m not ready to just let go.”
Mary Spencer’s Boxing Ontario boxing workshop will be in the Sports Zone of the Aboriginal Pavilion on July 18 at Fort York’s Garrison Common Grounds (250 Fort York Boulevard) in Toronto, Ontario. For more information, visit: http://www.alppavilion.ca
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.