EXCLUSIVE: Commonwealth boxing champion Stacey Copeland explains how gender bias has been her toughest opponent
As a young kid Stacey Copeland cut her hair short to look like a boy so she could play football. Then, she wanted to be a boxer. But as a female she couldn't, because it was illegal.
That she went on to play football for England Under 18s before becoming the first British woman to win the Commonwealth Boxing Title, suggests this is someone who doesn't take 'no' for an answer.
But it wasn't enough for Copeland to simply prove the doubters wrong and tear down the barriers that stood in her way. She wanted to change things for others.
Hence in 2017 she founded Pave the Way, a campaign that seeks to challenge gender stereotypes in sports and other aspects of life and helps girls and women find a pathway to achieve their potential. It has since gained national recognition and been submitted for charity status.
Talking exclusively to NewsChain, she said: “Gender has been the biggest barrier to me reaching my potential in sport and that’s not good enough. I want to change that for the next generation in sport but also in all aspects of life.
“In both boxing and football my gender has without a doubt been the biggest block in my career right since I was a little kid and all the way through to the elite level."
Born in Romford, Essex in 1981, Copeland recalled: “When I was young, I had my hair cut short so I could pretend to be a boy and play on their football team. That has a lot of consequences with people saying things like “why do you want to be a boy” and treating you a bit like a freak.
“I didn’t want to be a boy, I just wanted to play those sports. I shouldn't have had to go to such lengths to do that. It's ridiculous.
“This gender injustice is why I’ve established 'Pave the Way', to make sure we can put an end to this feeling and make everyone feel equally valued. It’s about trying to break down the stigma on both sides and spark a social change and make a difference."
As a footballer, Copeland played for top English club Doncaster Belles, before going on to represent her country. She also played in Sweden and America after winning a soccer scholarship to St Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, aged 22.
Sadly her days as a footballer were ended following a leg break at 29, one of many injuries she suffered, but more on the football pitch than in the boxing ring.
In the case of boxing, the barrier to a girl making a career in the sport was more fundamental. It was actually against the law.
“It was just impossible and that was purely because of my gender - it was banned for my gender and that was a very serious concrete barrier at the time," she says.
This hit a young Copeland particularly hard as boxing ran in the family. In an earlier interview she recalled: “I’ve been involved in boxing since I was young as my grandad used to fight in the old boxing booths. He ran our amateur boxing gym for about 40 years and it’s now named after him, The Roy Richardson Boxing Academy. My dad was also a boxer, he was ABA champion in 1979."
Eddie Copeland was among the most highly-regarded boxers in Britain in the early 1980s. But after just a few fights a career that promised so much was brought to a premature end following a punch to the eye.
Professional boxing for women in the UK was legalised only as recently as 1997. But, as Copeland points out, "even now, it’s legal but girls are still facing so many hurdles between them and the ring. And the main one of these is just being a girl. It’s not on".
After all the hurdles she has overcome, becoming the Commonwealth champion in July last year should have been the best day of Copeland’s career. But even this historic moment was tinged with disappointement.
For at the stage when the new champion should have been crowned with the presentation of the welterweight belt, she wasn't, because there was no belt. She was told the real ones were too expensive and they weren't making replica ones anymore because 'there's no money in women's boxing'.
"There was a sickening burning of injustice that I felt inside and a feeling that because I was a female I was a second-class human being. That is something no human should ever feel,” she says.
The 38-year-old turned what she called her “fire of injustice” into determination adding: “I wasn’t going to sit and do nothing so I said to the guy from the boxing federation 'right well it is what it is - how quickly can I have a real belt?' and he said, “well you could have one within two weeks but they’re expensive so unless you’ve got a sugar daddy you probably won’t be able to have one.
“He might not have meant it in a derogatory way, but I dunno how else you’re meant to take it. Like, would he ever say that to a guy?
“Yes, I was massively disappointed after the fight and when my friends came to surprise me at the airport because I couldn’t share it with the people I do this for and who I wanted to share those moments with. I owe it to them. And that is something none of us will ever get back and it was all because I was female.
“Even if I’d had to pay for it myself I would have chosen to have that belt. I am never going to have that moment in the ring or at the airport.”
Her amateaur record of 32 wins and eight losses speaks for itself, as well as a European Silver, three time National ABA titles, two Swedish boxcup titles, and two Haringey international cup titles. Since turning pro in 2017 her record stands at five wins to zero losses.
Copeland is now focusing on recovery from surgery on her hand with the aim of getting back in the ring. Pave the Way is still very much at the forefront of her attentions as well as presenting 'The Dead Good Show' on Radio Manchester.
She is determined for the campaign to impact the lives of children to save them from facing the same adversities she did. She speaks at conferences and educates business leaders and companies on how best to do their bit for equality and last year spoke at the the United Nations and European Parliament about women in sport.
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She finished by saying: "If we can just impact one parent so when their child asks to do the thing they love they won’t say 'that’s not for you really', they’ll say 'let’s get you down to that team and get you trying out whatever'. And that is regardless of gender and regardless of sport.
"Things need to change.”