First setting foot in a ring when she was 21 only two years ago initially as a good way to get fit whilst she was studying at Liverpool John Moore’s it’s probably easy to think that it would be too early for the sleight, Bury-born Sarah Dunne to show her potential. Yet in her short life as a competitive boxer Sarah, who is a school teaching assistant by day, has already shown she is more than capable of a promising sporting future.
After leaving university in 2011 she moved back home to find work but decided not to leave what had by now become a serious hobby behind and found a new home at Bury ABC Boxing Club. Since she’s been there her sporting resume has blossomed and has already gained national acclaim by gaining two golds for her class at the 2012/2013 national ABAE Female Championship and for class C in 2012.
Even more impressively she was the winner of a silver medal in this year’s prestigious North European tournament that sees Europe’s 200 best boxers go head to head , Golden Girls, after beating two times British novice champion Nina Bradley in a weight class above her own.
With further successes in 10 out of 13 other bouts and a recent gold in the Haringey Box Cup 57k division her fast-paced achievements could signal her potential to equal the record of Olympic entrant Natasha Jonas, who, having also started late at the same age had notched up five ABA victories after her fifth competitive year.
But what is it like to be a young female boxer in a country that only began to license women in 1997 and where the first licensed match took place in 1998, a mere 15 years ago?
Sarah said: ” From the training point of view the reception I got when I joined the gyms was a bit mixed.
” I’m the only girl at my gym and in mine and other people’s experience that’s been a regular occurrence because there still doesn’t seem to be many females around.
“Some of the guys at the gym were welcoming but at the same time they didn’t expect a lot from you; they were surprised if you could do a press up or beat a lad at sprints.
“I was really determined to keep at it despite people’s reservations. I’ve always been a tom boy so playing sport with them didn’t put me off but it was a bit daunting at first because you’re fighting for them to take you seriously.
“For me it was all about exceeding their expectations and once I’d been at the clubs for a while training twice a week I was accepted as one of the lads and I think that is quite a common situation that many other female competitive boxers in the UK have gone through.”
When it comes to availability of female only classes in the UK data by the ABAE suggests that rates are on the up with around 40% of classes now offering dedicated female only sessions. That is a relatively sharp increase in recent years that has been helped by increased media focus on the women who have risen through the ranks as female boxing became more established and more competitions were offered.
“Competing with the lads in training means that you’ve got to work to their level and I’m not sure that I’d work as hard if I trained in an all-female class so I think mixing sexes personally is a good idea.
“It’s a high impact sport but you wouldn’t have to spar with someone who was not in your weight class regardless of their sex because that could be dangerous.
“I recognise that some people feel uncomfortable training with males but I don’t think boxing should be categorised by sex; i think you should be defined purely as a boxer and by your ability, that’s it. “I think you should have a choice with who you can compete with or at least the option to train with males.”
Surrounded by males Sarah has certainly shown her determination and resilience. But what does she think is needed to encourage more women into the ring?
“Even though everyone knows women like Nicola Adams and Natasha Jonas who I think have inspired a lot of girls from the uptake I’ve seen first hand at competitions it would be great if there were some female role models at that level as well because it would further normalise the sport for more women. “I can still sometimes wait months and months in-between matches if someone can’t be found who is in my weight and ability class.
“This can make it difficult to progress as much as a female because at the moment there simply aren’t as many women to compete against in the country.
“Hopefully now that women’s boxing has been accepted into the 2014 Commonwealth Games and the Olympics a lot more women will be encouraged into it and extra funding has been put in place since 2012 which should help but I think that more could always be offered to give it the push it needs too. “There’s always going to be a problem with getting women into boxing though to some extent whatever funding is pushed at it as it’s a contact sport and at the end of the day you’ve got to be prepared to get a black eye or a bust lip.
And who was the hero that encouraged Sarah to stay focused on her dream in what is still very much a male-dominated sport? “There was one woman who really stood out for me when I started out called Lucia Rieke. My partner bought me her DVD and I still watch it sometimes before I fight because she’s so inspiring. She’s really such an accomplished boxer.
“But my favourite boxer is Roy Jones Junior because he makes it look so easy that you forget how much effort they’ve gone through to get to that stage.”
And what advice would she give other women who are contemplating starting out competitively in the sport?
“I would say just go for it, even if you’re the only girl in your class or the club has never coached a girl before.
“Stick at it and like me you’ll hopefully find that after a while you’ll just be treated as one of them.
“When it comes to moving from training to your first contest remember that nerves are to be expected and are just something that you have to get over. “When I entered my first novice championship in June 2011 in Nottingham I’d only had one fight.
“I was so nervous because I’d not had much experience that I felt sick and was trying to think of everything that I could say to get out of it.
“But I knew that I’d been training hard and didn’t want to let it all go to waste so competed and even though I lost on a points decision I got a silver medal out of it.
“Equally as nerve-wracking was the Golden Girl Championship, my first international contest, where I had to swap my coach for team training who I’d obviously got used to but you get used to changes and I was pleased with the new coach.
“On top of that I had to get my weight down to 57 kilos but when we all weighed in there was no one else in my category so I ended up boxing people in a higher weight class than my own.
“That was a real test but I beat the British 60kg champion in the semi finals and fought against a girl in the final who had competed against Jonas so it was a great experience in the end that earned me a silver medal and gave me so much more confidence.
“Getting in the ring and boxing is an odd feeling at first because you’re doing something that your body’s telling you not to do but your confidence grows as you go on. “Even if you give it a go and decide competitive boxing isn’t for you it’s still a great way to keep fit.”
And at a time where female boxing is gradually becoming more accepted in official circles what are her hopes for the future and would she consider turning professional if her winning streak continues?
“There’s another national championships later this year where hopefully I’ll be moving up to compete in the open class and I’d like to stay an amateur because there’s so much more scope for it now since the Olympics.
“At a professional level not much exists for women in this country, you’d have to go to America or Europe or revert back to amateur.
“It’s a few years until the next Olympics so I could definitely be in with a chance of becoming a contender but it’s just up to me to make that happen and get up there with the top British boxers.
“Luckily my friends and family have been really supportive along the way as well as having great coaches so I’m hoping that I’ve got the best conditions on my side to do well.”