It has been a decade since Mary Spencer took a friend up on a suggestion to go for a workout at a local boxing gym.
She was rather intrigued when her cab pulled up outside the Windsor Amateur Boxing Club that day. The gritty exterior of the grey, windowless structure was not exactly inviting.
Once inside though, it was love at first sight.
Spencer has spent the last 10 years honing her skills in the tiny club. Along the way she has won three world titles and a Pan Am Games gold medal.
Next up is her ultimate goal: success at the Summer Games in London, where women’s boxing will be a full Olympic medal event for the first time. She’s ready for the challenge.
“A lot of times I think to myself, ‘I’ve already won this fight, now I just have to live it,“’ she said in an interview. “Now I just have to live through the process of getting there because it’s like I already know what the end result is going to be.”
Spencer came perilously close to missing out on her Olympic dream.
She suffered an upset loss in her opening bout at the lone qualifying event – the women’s world championships last May – but was later awarded the lone wild-card entry in her weight class for London.
Spencer won world titles in the 66-kilogram category in 2005 and 2008. She moved up to the 75-kilogram division in 2010 and won again.
However, her impressive run of consistency took a hit in the spring. She lost to American Claressa Shields in April before dropping a decision to Sweden’s Anna Laurell a month later at the world championships in China.
Spencer resumed training after returning home and was able to stay focused even though the wild-card decision didn’t come down until mid-June.
“It seems like it could have been a hard thing to do but everything came together very well,” she said. “We’ve been practising for this summer so I haven’t lost any concentration at all.”
Her focus has been a constant since her early days at the club a decade ago.
“When I first came here I remembered seeing this tiny building that had spray paint from top to bottom all the way around the building,” Spencer said. “It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.”
Spencer was hooked from the start.
“There were these two tiny rooms, one room had some bags and they were all squished together,” she said. “The other room had just enough space for a ring and no room around the outside.
“It was really small and tight and you’d put a lot of bodies in there and it had the feel of a real genuine boxing club.”
She was up for a fresh challenge and boxing was a great fit. Spencer enjoyed the workouts and quickly embraced the sport.
Veteran boxing coach Charlie Stewart was impressed with her work ethic and attitude. Spencer ramped up her training and soon started to take on opponents.
In 2003, she won her first provincial title. She added a national crown in 2004 and has successfully retained the Canadian title each year since.
“Pound for pound she’s one of the best female boxers in the world,” Stewart said. “She’s learned everything, she’s got what it takes.”
There is a warm, family feeling in the gym as local boxers pop in regularly to spar and work out. The stiff scent of sweat and gym equipment hits you as soon as you walk in.
The visuals are there too.
The words “House of Pain” hover in big black letters over the garage door. A few pairs of well-worn gloves hang like ornaments from the girders and framed boxing posters adorn the walls.
On this day, Spencer wraps a bandanna around her head and gets loose with some bag work.
Her chiselled arms pound the equipment with remarkable ferocity. Her powerful legs move effortlessly as she works on positioning and footwork.
Spencer’s gleaming brown eyes light up as she attacks the bag. The 27-year-old native of Wiarton, Ont., clearly loves the process.
“I train all day long and every decision I make is based on whether it’s going to get me closer to my goal,” she said.
It’s an intense workout routine.
Spencer is up at 5 a.m. daily and puts her running shoes on an hour later. After a long jog or sprints, she’ll do some bag work, technical training and sparring until mid-morning.
Spencer usually returns to the gym by noon for a one-hour session of hard sparring. Then it’s another break followed by a 2 1/2-hour gym session in the late afternoon.
Her experience, natural skill and dedication gives the five-foot-11 Spencer every reason to like her chances in London.
“Every time I went in (the ring) and said I was going to win, it always happened,” she said. “It is a confidence thing. It’s the mindset and the way you think but at the same time I’m able to think like that because I’ve put the work in.
“I’m not just going in and saying I’m going to win because I’m overconfident.”
The women’s boxing competition begins Aug. 5 at the ExCeL London. Stewart also likes Spencer’s chances.
“She’s a winner,” he said. “It’s that quality that some people have that others don’t.”
It has been almost 25 years since Canada last won Olympic boxing gold. Lennox Lewis was victorious at the Seoul Games in 1988.
“A gold medal would mean a lot, especially coming after such a great boxer as Lennox Lewis,” Spencer said. “To have your name come after him in the history books (would be) amazing.”
One of Spencer’s favourite current fighters is Bernard Hopkins, who won a world title last year at the age of 46.
“He just plays an awesome mind game,” Spencer said. “He’s so disciplined and so smart. He was the last boxer who really made me say, ‘Wow.“’ Spencer, who is single and lives in Windsor, hasn’t given a lot of thought to what her next challenge might be after the Games.
“I can tell you I won’t be boxing at 46, that’s for sure,” she said with a laugh.
Coaching has crossed her mind. She would like to stay involved in the sport once her fighting days are done.
On the financial front, the local community has been supportive and sponsors have helped give her a boost.
“It’s been great, things just came together,” she said. “Now that we’re an Olympic sport we’re recognized by Sport Canada and Own the Podium and that type of thing.”
Right now, she’s in her prime at the perfect time. And she doesn’t think the Olympic spotlight will affect her when the bell finally rings.
“When I go home and think about my fights, I’m nervous then – months in advance,” she said. “So when I’m getting ready for a fight I don’t have to be nervous anymore. My adrenalin is definitely going and sometimes I think I should be nervous or want to feel nervous even.
“But it’s like you know what, I won this fight in the gym. Now I’m just going to live through it and enjoy it.”
Spencer said one of her biggest strengths is being able to adapt to an opponent’s style.
“Just because it’s a tournament, you can get anybody ... I have to be able to adapt or I’m going to get a rude wake-up call,” she said.
Female boxers at the London Olympics will be allowed to wear either a skirt or shorts under a recent amendment to amateur boxing rules.
Spencer has worn a skirt in the ring before and liked the feel of it.
“I tried it on one day and I was like, ‘This is really comfortable.’ I can move well, so I’ll wear it,” she said. “Other people, they think too hard about things and they want to know why they’re being told to wear a skirt. They assume what everyone’s intentions are for the skirt.
“To me it’s fine, it’s comfortable, I can move better. So why wouldn’t I want to wear it?”
Two Canadians have qualified for the men’s boxing competition at the Games. Simon Kean of Trois-Rivieres, Que., will compete in the 91-kilo division and Halifax’s Custio Clayton qualified in the 69-kilo weight class.
Spencer will be the lone Canadian women’s boxer to compete in London.
Now it’s just a matter of forgetting about the pressure and going for gold.
“I have my own expectations of myself and they’re higher than anyone else’s expectations anyway,” Spencer said. “It doesn’t mean anything. I look at it like it’s support.”