Nicola Adams has announced that she’s made the “difficult decision to step down from the ring” after doctors warned her that any further impact to her eye could lead to permanent vision loss. Today we remember the sporting icon’s achievements, looking back to when she spoke to Stylist’s Alexandra Jones in 2016 with the Rio Olympics ahead of her.
The date is 20 April 2016, and boxer Nicola Adams doesn’t walk into the room, she breezes. She’s carrying a sports bag that dwarfs her, yet bounds around the team, shaking hands and dispensing the mega-watt smile that has become her calling card (her nickname is ‘The Baby-Faced Assassin’), with a nigh-on feline poise. In fact, she has a grace that makes everyone else in the room look a bit lumpen.
Though only 5ft 5 and a slight eight stone, Adams, 33, is everything you would expect from an Olympian: fit, of course, but also confident and entirely self-assured. She has the kind of glowing skin and hard abs that no amount of lunchtime yoga will ever replicate. Divested of her bag she is restlessly energetic – she bounces on her toes, fiddles with her zips, flicks through her phone – as if downtime is an alien concept. She also makes a point of snapchatting every part of the shoot from the dressing room to the set. “I’m a bit of a Snapchat addict,” she grins.
We’re meeting on Easter Monday – the only day before the end of May where she has a window long enough for us to shoot and interview her. So, amid a packed schedule of training and tournaments, we’ve snagged five hours on the proviso that we start at 7am and finish before midday (giving her time to get back to her training gym in Sheffield for an evening sparring session) and book her a hotel with a gym – she has the Stylist team staring shame-faced into our triple-shot flat whites when she explains that she’s already done an hour-long workout before arriving). We would usually describe anyone else with all these commitments as ‘busy’. Adams, though, is a much rarer thing: she’s supremely dedicated.
And, perhaps unsurprisingly she’s also supremely confident. Before the shoot, we’d had the idea to create a ‘blood, sweat and tears’ theme for Adams’ cover photographs; to visually represent the sacrifices and hard work it takes to become an Olympic athlete. But the suggestion of blood leaves the positive-thinking Adams nonplussed. “But I don’t get hit,” she tells us flatly before changing the subject. Unsurprisingly, not winning is not an option Adams has ever considered. Proved entirely in 2015, when she made history by becoming the first woman to win gold in consecutive Olympic (2012), Commonwealth (2014) and European Games. But her confidence shouldn’t be confused as arrogance. In fact, Adams is extremely likable.
“Everyone always asks how I deal with the pressure, but I just do”, she says at one point, followed by a peel of infectious laughter. “I’m a positive person,” she agrees.
If you’ve ever watched Adams you’ll be familiar with this zeal radiating around the ring when she fights – rather than trash talk and cold stares, which sends her into each fight smiling, bouncing and looking positively energised. “I try to imagine what I must look like to an opponent,” she muses. “I guess seeming as if I’m having the time of my life must be intimidating. But I look at some fighters and I’m like, ‘Why so serious? Who took the jam out of your donut?’”
It’s that upbeat outlook – along with some stern words from her mum, Denver, who raised Nicola and her younger brother, Kurtis, single-handedly – that she credits for getting her to the Games in 2012. “I saw my mum working hard and it inspired me that you can do anything you want as long as you put your mind to it.”
Adams’ Olympic boxing journey began when she was 25, when she became the first female boxer to win silver at the 2007 European championships, followed by another silver medal at the world championships the following year. She had already dedicated her life to boxing and knew – if women were ever allowed to box at the Olympics – she’d be front of the queue. But when that ground-breaking moment finally came on 13 August 2009, Adams’ nightmares – not dreams – were becoming realized. Instead, she was lying in bed, strapped into a brace, moving “as little as possible for 12 hours a day and dosed-up on painkillers. I had fallen down a flight of stairs and broken a bone in my back.” The historic announcement was something Adams had dreamed of since taking up boxing aged 12 and one that now seemed out of reach. “I went from doing 300 sit-ups a day to not being able to lift my shoulders off the floor. I thought, ‘It’s all over, I’ll never be in good enough condition to qualify for the Olympic squad.’”
A year later, Adams still hadn’t boxed. She could barely jog, let alone dance around the canvas, and punching was out of the question. As the last trial for the Team GB squad loomed, she was warned it was her final chance of qualifying. Unable to let her dream slip away she went back to the ring, using morphine patches (“I was only supposed to have one, but I stuck two on”) and painkillers to “just do it.” Amazingly, the coaches saw her potential and she qualified for the team.
Despite being in so much pain for days after the qualifying match, Adams put everything she had into her recovery. “That fall was the darkest point of my life,” she recalls. “But all through the physio and through the months that I couldn’t box, I just kept thinking: I want to win.” Her will power paid off and just two years later, after she thought she’d never box again, she was stood in the Olympic ring, fists raised to the sky celebrating her win over China’s Ren Cancan 16-7 in the flyweight finals, a 10,000-strong home crowd cheering her name.
“From the beginning people told me that women’s boxing would never be an Olympic sport. But I was like, ‘Nope, I’m happy with my dream.’ I just didn’t let anyone deter me from it,” she explains. “I just never considered doing anything else.” That single-mindedness is particularly bold because when Adams started boxing aged 12, women were still banned from boxing professionally. The 116-year ban on women’s boxing was only lifted two years later in 1996. And it would be another two years before British boxer Jane Couch proved at an official tribunal that denying women professional boxing licenses on the grounds that PMT made them unstable (as the British Boxing Board of Control claimed) was sexual discrimination.
“There weren’t any female idols in boxing when I started out,” Adams says. “My heroes were Mohammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.” And with no government sponsorship available before it was added to the Olympic schedule in 2009, Adams spent the majority of her career doing odd jobs to make ends-meet. She was an extra on Coronation Street, worked as a painter and decorator. She would train twice a day and borrowed money from her mum to attend tournaments around the world (“there were better female boxers outside the UK; I wanted to fight the best”).
The secret to her success, as it turns out, isn’t that complex: it’s ‘train hard, train often.’ “From 7am to 7pm, five days a week,” she says. “Each day starts with a three-mile run, then sprints – which get more intensive each week. I’m never comfortable in training, pain barriers are always being broken. It’s the only way to improve, it’s not pleasant,” she laughs.
Around lunchtime Adams “might do six sets of 10 press-ups with a 15kg weight on my back” followed by a two-hour boxing technique and sparring session in the evening. “I spar with men, they tend to be faster and stronger so it keeps me focused.
“There are days when I don’t feel like doing it,” she says. “But I stick to my regime. I want to win.”
It’s impossible to talk to Adams at any length without the W word making an appearance: winning. “When I’m going into a competition, it never even enters my mind that I might lose. I’m very competitive. When it does happen, I am a bit of a sore loser.” So is that focus something she was born with? “I think so. Even when I play board games at Christmas, I still have to win. I’m still known to sulk if I don’t come out on top.”
Before a fight, Adams uses her Olympic podium moment to visualise success. “I remember feeling happy, overwhelmed and relieved. Before I go into the ring now, I just imagine winning, feeling that all over again. And when I’ve done that I try to stay relaxed – I’ll have Drake Summer Sixteen on and joke with my team.”
As well as a gruelling regime, being an Olympic athlete has forced Adams to her relinquish control over her weight, diet and even her holiday plans (she only gets two weeks off for Christmas). All are dictated by a packed schedule (up to 30 fights per year) and a team of coaches.
She starts with her morning weigh-in (“I box at 51kgs and have to be within a 5% margin of that weight at all times.”). Then meals are a variation of chicken and vegetables and come pre-prepared from a delivery service, except for her sacred morning bowl of Frosties. “Frosties were non-negotiable,” she laughs.
I muse that having to give up so much of your freedom must get frustrating. She owns a house in Leeds but is rarely there as she trains all week in Sheffield. “Sometimes it does. I’ve been over my top weight a few times because I’ve let my diet slip. I even had a cheeky Big Mac after winning Olympic gold. And answering to a coach about every single thing I’ve eaten isn’t easy but I’m used to it.”
It’s a rare moment that she allows her focus to slip. At the shoot she doesn’t eat anything, although she does admit she’s eaten half the Easter egg we left in her hotel room. “When I’m tempted to throw off my training diet for a rack of Jack Daniels ribs at TGI Fridays or a piña colada, I just stop and think to myself, if I follow the rules, I might become the first British person – man or woman – to win two Olympic gold medals in boxing.” And that simple, focused thought, means that in 100 days’ time, Nicola Adams looks set to make history once again. We’ll be sure to have the Big Mac on standby.
What it feels like to be hit by Nicola Adams
Jack Bateson, GB flyweight boxer and sparring partner, says:
“When you get punched by someone like Nicola you immediately feel your heart start to race and your breath quicken and a huge adrenaline rush ensues.
It makes you feel immediately frustrated and eager to fight back, but that’s where you risk losing your focus.
It definitely hurts when she punches you. It hurts when anyone punches you, but that’s what we’re there for – we expect it.
Men and women fight separately as there are differences in strength, but Nicola is on par with men. She’s very strong but her power is mostly in her speed. She can box on the inside [a defensive, close-body tactic that’s difficult to get right] really well. In fact, there’s nothing in the ring that she doesn’t excel at.”
Main image: Getty Images
Portrait photography: Chris Floyd
Styling: Koulla Sergi
Make-up and hair: Jaimee Thomas at Frank Agency using Elemis
Photography Assistants: Tori Ferenc and Andras Bartok
Opener fashion: hoodie, £48, American Apparel, all other kit, Nicola’s own