Fighting to put female boxing on map
Ariane Fortin's life changed the day she watched the movie Girlfight.
The award-winning film, starring Michelle Rodriguez, is about a troubled teen who finds direction - and shatters stereotypes - through the sport of boxing.
The story proved to be a catalyst for Fortin, who was inspired to take up the sport and went on to become one of the planet's top female amateur boxers.
"I just thought it looked cool," chuckled Fortin, a two-time world champion who's in Regina this week for the Canadian elite men's and women's championships. "Looking back to it, I think I really got hooked because of the confidence of the character. I started going to the gym with two of my friends and that was it."
Ironically, Fortin is now a source of inspiration for young girls across the country.The Montreal product is continuing to fight the good fight, helping her sport achieve the respect she feels it deserves. The biggest victory on that front was achieved last year with the inclusion of female boxing in the Olympics for the first time.
"In the last years I felt like there was a decrease in women's boxing," said Fortin. "With the Olympics coming in I think it's going to help. It's the best advertising you can have for your sport. The women who were there (at the London Games) really gave a good impression of women's boxing. All of that is really positive for the sport and it's going to interest more people to do it."
There's also the matter of educating the masses. Although female boxing has been sanctioned in Canada since 1991, the general public doesn't seem to know a great deal about it.
"A lot of guys and women get the impression that women's boxing is at a low level," added Fortin. "I have a couple of guy friends who came to watch sparring and they were impressed by the quality of the boxing.
"The more exposure it's going to receive the more people are going to take interest because there are a lot of talented athletes. They just need to be seen."
One of those athletes is Mandy Bujold, who arrived in Regina this week a seventime Canadian champion (51-kilogram division). The native of Kitchener, Ont., came within an eyelash of qualifying for the 2012 Olympics and - like Fortin - now has 2016 in her sights.
"For young girls to see women go to the Olympics and win medals and to see the sport from a different perspective, I think it's really good," said Bujold. "I fought about a month ago and I invited a few people who had never seen amateur boxing and they didn't even know it existed. There's always people who are not too sure because we don't get the publicity and we don't get the TV coverage that professional boxing gets."
And don't forget the stereotypes - those which suggest boxing isn't for women. "I get that all the time," Bujold added with a laugh. "Boxing was something I got into more for fitness and I fell in love with it. It's so demanding and you always have to push yourself. A lot of girls kind of look for that and boxing is a good place to channel your energy."
Despite the Olympic breakthrough, women's boxing is still challenged by the decision to include just three weight classes in the Games: 51kg, 60kg and 75kg. There's a push to expand the weight classes but - in the meantime - the window of opportunity for Olympic hopefuls is much smaller.
That's why Fortin was forced to go from 70kg to 75kg, placing her in direct competition with Mary Spencer, a three-time world champion. Spencer defeated Fortin in last year's Canadian championships and went on to receive Canada's lone Olympic berth.
"If you want to have a chance at the Olympics you have to go into one of those weight classes," noted Bujold, a gold medallist at the 2011 Pan American Games. "Those weight classes are very, very strong. Anyone who has a chance or is very good, they go into those three weight classes, which leaves the other weight classes not at the same level. Hopefully we get more boxing in the Olympics. They've already said no to (adding more weight classes in) 2016. Hopefully in 2020."