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first person

Illustration by Ashley Wong

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Jab, straight, left-right hooks to the head, left-right hooks to the body and repeat.

It’s early January, too soon for new year’s resolutions to be consigned to the scrap heap. I’m taking advantage of a free initial visit at a women-led, open-to-everyone, non-profit boxing club. A coach wraps my hands, slides on gloves and demonstrates the rudimentary punches – jab, straight, left hook, right hook, left and right uppercuts. Then it’s my turn. The deep whomp when I hit the heavy bag is one of the most satisfying sounds I’ve ever heard. I sign up and consider my membership an advance gift for my rapidly approaching 64th birthday.

When I was a kid, I was what society euphemistically called “a big girl,” both in height and girth. My nickname was Joanie Pony Fat Baloney. Today, we know it as body-shaming; back then, there was no such concept. I recall being made a reluctant ring-hockey goalie in elementary school, not because of any exceptional prowess at blocking shots, but because my bulk filled up half the net. Despite my size, the puck still rocketed by me. It was the disappointment, mine and theirs, that stung the most. Experiences such as that one left me forever resistant to join any team sports. As a result, I’m attracted to the singular nature of lane swimming, walking and now the pounding of a heavy bag.

It’s just the bag, my body and my resolve.

The boxing club, a former muffler repair shop, feels like the inside of a meat locker in winter. Within minutes, the exertion of punching leaves me red-faced and sweaty, and I’m thankful for the ceiling fans whirling above me. In summer, the coach will turn on the floor fans and open the garage door to let in a cooling breeze.

The bag sways lightly as I punch to the barked-out instructions from a coach who calls herself Princess Killer. I pay attention to my technique. Aim the glove with the fourth knuckle to distribute the impact evenly across the hand. Long arm punches straight out from my shoulders for both the straight and jab, as if I’m sliding my arms along a wall. Pretend the bag is on fire – a quick pow and pull away. Pivot on my right foot as I throw a straight power punch. Reset gloves to my face. Arms at piston-like right angles and body closer to the bag for hooks and uppercuts. Concentrate, concentrate. If I don’t focus, I risk injury.

When I pummel the bag, I have no thought in my head for the pile of dirty laundry, the week jammed with commitments, my continuing cancer treatment, the osteoarthritis chewing unrelentingly through my lower back and right knee, or the latest infuriating political scandal.

Near the end of the class, we remove gloves and wraps and move to the floor, rhythmically slapping heavy battling ropes against the floor; lifting weights to condition our arms, legs and core; and sweating out sit-ups, push-ups, planks and crunches on floor mats. Who knew there were so many types of planks?

This old underdog has learned new tricks. I could barely complete two squats when I enrolled two years ago, but now I can do them like a boss. My stamina has increased. Is that a shadow of definition in my biceps? Sciatica pain is disappearing. My mental health and confidence have improved dramatically. I’m on my fourth set of boxing gloves, having literally knocked the stuffing out of the first three pairs. I’m stronger and more resilient than I thought, and I realize that I underestimated myself.

There have been some challenges. A year after joining the club, our beloved dog died, and 10 days after that I was diagnosed with pneumonia. The combined impact of these two setbacks knocked me to the mat. I returned to boxing too early and aggravated an old injury. I feel perverse pride that I have to see a sports therapist for the first time in my life. Me, Joanie Pony Fat Baloney. I’m eager to get back to the club. Never have I been this committed to a fitness regimen.

After arm work and a three-minute wall sit, my shoulders and legs are on fire. I’m dying. You’re not dying, the coach says. No one has ever died here. Yet, I mutter.

Now almost 66, I am the oldest active member of the club. My 91-year-old mother, she of a generation that observes strict distinctions between the genders, was shocked when I signed up for boxing classes. Now that she’s seen my health benefits, she boasts about her boxing daughter. I quietly thank the pioneering women who made boxing acceptable for seniors such as me.

Not only am I fitter, I’ve become part of a community. We laugh and punch and lift weights together, share our personal lives, talk politics and plot revolutions. From youngsters to old-timers, we all box for our own reasons – fitness, to learn a new skill, to prove something, perhaps to overcome.

When my class ends, the damp wraps leave red indentations between my fingers and across the back of my mottled hands. Sweat trickles into my eyes. Princess Killer was right. I didn’t die. In fact, I’m chuffed that I can accomplish something amazing despite my struggling body. Instead of thinking outside the box, I have learned to box outside the thinking. I’ve delivered a knockout blow to the negative thinking that typically persuades me to end a workout regimen – I’m too old, too unathletic, too unmotivated, too klutzy, too health-comprised.

I power punch the bag one final time, pleased with my workout and its contribution to my mental and physical health. If I was in a ring, I’d raise my gloves in victory.

Joan (Lady Macdeath) Wiley lives in St. Catharines, Ont.