Four-time Ulster Senior Amateur Boxing champion, Caroline Connolly has enjoyed outstanding success in the sport despite fighting gender issues and battling with exercise-induced asthma. And now the Strabane woman is hoping to make her mark as a coach!
Caroline Connelly is on a mission to break down barriers in the typically male dominated world of amateur boxing!
The Strabane southpaw is a registered nurse, a corporal in the Irish Army Reserves and a four-time Ulster Senior Boxing champion.
And yet the most inspiring part of her unique story is how she achieved all her success while battling with a respiratory condition.
Caroline has been learning to live with her exercise-induced asthma since 2007 and yet it hasn’t limited her ability to achieve success in the sport.
If one is going for gold in a sport such as boxing it demands no shortage of huffing and puffing, and one would think that asthma would be a pretty significant disadvantage.
But it clearly hasn’t deterred Caroline and the local lass wants her story to inspire others with similar illnesses to get involved in ladies boxing.
“I’d like to encourage those who suffer from asthma to get involved with any sport and to make them aware that it doesn’t have to hold you back,” she said.
“When I’m boxing I always struggle with my breathing in the opening round but I get stronger over the last two rounds. It’s actually very common for athletes to experience breathing difficulties.”
And there are steps you can take for prevention of asthma symptoms that will allow you to maintain normal physical activity and many athletes - even Olympic athletes - successfully compete with asthma. In fact the most common chronic condition among all Olympic athletes is asthma!
Caroline has learned to live with her condition and, surprisingly, she believes boxing has actually helped control her breathing difficulties.
“You can do it. Exercise is actually very good for asthmatics. It helps control your breathing and can help you manage the condition.”
Caroline has continually overcome obstacles since first taking an interest in the sport at the age of 13. Growing up with seven brothers, she was discouraged when she expressed her interest in joining the local boxing club in Strabane. She was told she would be made fun of as it was a predominantly male gym and there would be little or no female opposition to spar with.
She finally summoned up the courage to join a club, first lacing up her gloves at the age of 20. She’s now 35 years of age and in the final years of her amateur boxing career. During her 15 year involvement in the sport she has seen significant changes in how female boxing is viewed.
At the London Olympic Games in 2012 women’s boxing competitions were witnessed by capacity crowds at the ExCel Arena as Ireland’s Katie Taylor, Claressa Shields of the United States and England’s Nicola Adams claimed gold medals as female boxers took part in the games for the first time.
Today’s boxing landscape is dotted with skilled female performers and role models like Bray’s Katie Taylor who has been a magnificent ambassador for female boxing and one that Caroline herself has taken inspiration from.
Slowly but surely, critical views that female boxing is more of a spectacle than a sport have been eradicated and Taylor has been one of the trailblazers.
The number of young women who are engaging with boxing now is significant and Caroline is seeing at first hand this surge in interest at a local level.
“My brother never let me join him at the local boxing club because he told me everyone would laugh at me.
“And all the clubs refused me because there was no female facilities. Eventually I joined a club in my early 20s and I went from strength to strength and won numerous titles. Lots of girls are now joining clubs and I believe they’ve introduced ‘boxercise’ in some of the schools as well. Girls want to learn the sport and are more keen than ever now. It’s a disciplined sport and you use it in a constructive way.
“I used to drink and smoke from an early age but boxing helped me turn my back on those addictions. The discipline I’ve learned over the past 10 years has been fantastic,”
Caroline wants to give something back to the sport which has served her so well and she is planning on opening her own amateur oxing gym for women.
“I’ve got my level one coaching badge a few years back so I’m a qualified coach and I have the nursing side of things too. So I can give them a black eye and fix it all on the one go,” she laughed.
“I was also thinking about setting up my own club in Strabane. Anybody willing to donate or support me would be great as I believe there is a big need for one.
“There’s three different boxing clubs in Strabane - Mourne Golden Gloves, Immaculata and Lisnafin but I want to open a club that caters mainly for females.
“Some girls are not willing to mix with men in these gyms and there’s a lot of girls approaching me asking if I can train them. Through my success in the sport some girls look up at me as an inspiration.”
Caroline claimed the 81 kgs title at the recent Ulster Senior Amateur Boxing Championships in January and she still has hopes of making into the Commonwealth Games squad this summer in Glasgow.
However, as the games will only cater for the thre weights, 51 kgs, 60 kgs and 75 kgs, the likelihood of Caroline securing her place on the N. Ireland team are slim.
But she remains hopeful and is currently seeking a boxing club to help her achieve her goals.