#41) Stacey Copeland

This week SportSpiel founder and co-host Alasdair Hooper writes about an athlete he describes as a pioneer, innovator and inspiration to all women.

Pave the way. Three words that sound so simple but can mean so much.

Those words can challenge prejudice, change society, alter stereotypes and make lives.

If you are looking for a walking, talking example of pave the way then thankfully we have one – boxer Stacey Copeland.

Last summer the 37-year-old caytoo athlete became the first British woman to win a Commonwealth boxing gold.

She grew up in a boxing mad family and, before she turned professional, she carved out a career in football playing for Doncaster Belles and the England U18s.

Women weren’t allowed to box then, you see.

But, as impressive as Stacey’s sporting accolades are, this isn’t a piece about Stacey the boxer or the footballer.

This is a piece about Stacey the pioneer, the innovator and the inspiration. She is the definition of pave the way.

It’s been about a year and a half since I first spoke to the Mancunian in an interview for SportSpiel but it was one of those conversations that has stuck with me ever since.

That was before the Commonwealth title and before she properly launched the ‘Pave the Way’ project. 

But it was clear from the off that inspiring the next generation through sport was the bedrock of who she was as a person.

“I don’t see being a role model as a responsibility, I see it as a privilege,” she said in that November 2017 interview. 

“When I was a kid growing up I didn’t have those role models in football or boxing.

“Everyone I looked up to was male.

“I did get questioned a lot as a kid in school. They’d say ‘why do you want to be a boy?’

“I was called ‘shim’ and ‘shemale’ just because I did boxing and football, which were considered boys sports.

“I felt like a weirdo a lot of the time and would ask ‘what was wrong with me?’

“‘Why am I a boy trapped in a girl’s body, what’s the matter with me?’

“There was nothing wrong with me – I was just a girl who loved those sports.”

Stacey’s identity struggle is probably something a lot of children growing up can relate to. 

Whether it’s through sport, or any other walk of life, society judges you – it’s almost programmed to.

When I was growing up, in school hockey was for girls and football was for boys. 

The story is similar with netball (girls’ sport) and rugby (boys’ sport). 

In terms of my own personal circumstances I turned to fencing, which isn’t necessarily for boys or for girls. But it sure as hell meant you were privately educated. 

So, what I find particularly vital about Stacey’s message, and the entire ‘Pave the Way’ mission statement, is that it’s not about who you are.

It’s about who you want to be – regardless of gender, background, or what others will tell you.

“It took me a long time to realise I didn’t want to be Sugar Ray Leonard, who I loved, or Muhammad Ali or David Beckham or Ryan Giggs,” said Stacey.

“I loved all of those athletes, but I didn’t want to be like them because of the gender.

“I wanted to be a great footballer or boxer like them.

“There just weren’t female equivalents to look up to so I do feel really passionately about making sure that I’m visible and that I’m sending out a message to young girls.

“You can be whatever you want to be and, if they’re being told they can’t do something, then yes they can.

“I want to be an example for them, and that goes beyond just girls.

“There’s a lot of people who can relate to that kind of story, male, female or otherwise.

“If I can inspire others that’s my greatest privilege as a human being and an athlete.”

Looking to the present day and Stacey is one of the most prominent and important mouthpieces for women’s sport out there.

You will frequently find her giving talks to children, training with them in gyms or hosting her own radio show on BBC Radio Manchester.

But at the heart of everything those same themes come across, showcasing exactly what sport can do for people.

“Sport is incredible at bringing about social change,” she told the Manchester Evening News in March 2019.

“From an early age, girls are repeatedly told they can’t do certain things because they’re girls.

“Women’s boxing is brilliant because it challenges society’s notions of femininity.

“That will fan out into society and that can only be a good thing.

“It’s really important for young girls and boys to know that whatever they love doing, it’s OK. Don’t let gender stereotypes define you.” 

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