This article was originally published on the National Post website.
All of her billboards are gone and her funding has dried up, but Mary Spencer, the Canadian boxer, smiled as she described her daily routine: “I wake up in the morning, have a coffee, punch someone in the face.”
A restaurant patron glanced over.
“Come on,” she said, not noticing. “That’s a good day.”
Three years ago, Spencer was a rising star, featuring prominently in a Canadian Olympic Committee advertising campaign. Women’s boxing was about to make its debut as a full medal sport at the London Olympics, and she was a three-time world champion, a fighter who also won the first gold medal at the Pan American Games, in Guadalajara, Mexico.
The Olympics did not go as planned. And now, at 30, Spencer was sitting by the window in a downtown Toronto restaurant, picking over seafood and taking stock. She still trains every day at her gym in Windsor, Ont., but more for hope, and less for glory.
As it stands, Spencer will not be allowed to defend her gold medal at the Pan Am Games this summer. She lost top billing at Boxing Canada by losing to rival Ariane Fortin two years ago, meaning if she wants to get to the Games, it will have to be as a fan.
“You know what? It’s really shitty,” she said. “I’ve thought about that. I’m like, ‘I want to come and watch the Pan Am Games … there’s athletes that I’ve been talking to, and I want to come and watch them compete if they make it.’”
The boxing events will be held in Oshawa, about 45 minutes east of Toronto.
“I want to be here,” she said. “Do I want to go to Oshawa and watch the boxing? I don’t know. I have other boxers from other countries saying, ‘why the hell is Ariane going to these competitions?’ They’re like, ‘what is wrong?’ ”
Spencer said she has no answer to that question.
“What do I say?” she said. “I have no idea. I’m the defending champion.”
In Mexico, Spencer did more than just win. She made her first opponent cry, at one point dropping both her gloves, daring American Franchon Crews to throw a punch. Crews did not have an answer, and Spencer won her first two fights by a combined score of 36-12.
Spencer and Fortin had been friends until women’s boxing was added to the Olympics in 2009, forcing them into the same weight class. There was only one ticket to London for both of them, and they fought for that ticket in January 2012 — with Spencer winning.
The advertising campaign followed. Spencer signed a contract with CoverGirl makeup, and had a documentary film crew trailing her across the world. Own the Podium, one of the main funding mechanisms for amateur sport in Canada, had invested heavily, giving more than $140,000 to help her training and preparation for London.
And then, the fighter began to struggle in the ring. Spencer lost her first fight at the world championships in China. She still got to London, but as a wildcard entry. And in London, amid the hype and the expectation, she lost in her first fight.
“I had nerves before a competition like I’d never had before,” Spencer said. “It made me almost freeze up. And that’s how you get when you know you’re not prepared.”
Looking back, she said, it was easy to see the errors in that preparation. Spencer said she found herself listening to advice from too many people, for one: “Everyone’s saying, ‘I know what it takes for you to win there,’ and you’re just trying to grab onto all that.”
She also attended a pre-competition training camp, which is something she said she often tried to resist. At the training camp, held in Belfast, she said she was put through training exercises that were foreign to her, and that she asked herself: “Should I be starting them a month before the Olympics?”
Daniel Trepanier, coach of the Canadian national team, suggested there was an inkling of doubt before the Olympics.
“Surprise? Yes and no,” he said. “We were seeing the competition getting better. The gap was closing between the other boxers and Mary since 2011. But, let’s say we didn’t expect the gap to be that close when we came to London.”
At home, her loss to Fortin allowed her rival to fight for Canada at the Commonwealth Games last summer in Scotland, where she earned silver. Boxing Canada did not require them to fight before the Pan Am Games, giving the spot to Fortin based on her record.
“Right now, she’s the one with the first position,” said Trepanier, who added Spencer has to “prove herself again.”
He said Fortin underwent shoulder surgery in November, and if she were unable to fight this summer, Spencer would be next in line. While the spot for the Pan Am Games has been decided, he said, Spencer and Fortin will both have the chance to fight for a berth in the next Olympics, next summer in Rio, at the Canadian Olympic trials in December.
“The gap is so close between those two,” he said. “Next year, it could be Mary who takes the spot.”