M’CHIGEENG—Anticipation filled the Lakeview School gymnasium as the Mino-Bimaadzidaa Good Life Conference got underway with a traditional prayer and smudge delivered through the auspices of elder Alma Jean Migwans to the drumbeat provided by the community drum. A welcoming message by Noojmowin Teg Health Centre’s Mark Peltier presaged the introduction by emcee Art Jacko of the first keynote speaker, Canadian World Champion boxer Mary Spencer.
Ms. Spencer is a Canadian boxer who currently competes as a 75-kilogram middleweight. Ms. Spencer has won three World Championships, one Pan American Games gold medal and eight Canadian Championships. She delivered an inspiring keynote address to the Mino-Bimaadzidaa “Good Life” conference in M’Chigeeng based on her own experiences battling setbacks in and out of the ring to achieve greatness.
Through a series of vignettes that followed her career from a young girl, fascinated by her non-sports oriented mother’s excitement over the televised Olympics, to the woman currently known globally as the world’s greatest boxer, pound for pound, of our generation, the boxer opened a window into the approach to life’s challenges that sustained her through challenges within and outside the ring.
“Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you choose to react,” she said, relaying the key piece of advice she received from a trainer early in her life. “In your life as a boxer, something will happen to you that you can’t control,” she recalled him saying. “That is not the important part. How you react is the important thing.”
“Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you choose to react,”
Ms. Spencer wound up as a boxer through one of those curious coincidences where a hand of fate seems to guide our destinies. She was headed to a fitness class and wound up in a boxing class instead.
The boxing coach took her as far as he could before introducing her to the kind of coach who could take her to the elite level.
Her trainer asked her if she wanted to just be a good boxer or if she wanted to be a champion. “‘Because if you just want to be good, we will be the best of friends and we will have a great time. If you want to be a champion, you will hate my guts’,” she recalled him saying. “He was not lying.” The road to championship was littered with forgone opportunities, missed seminal life events and a rigorous schedule of training that took her to the edge of her endurance and beyond.
He set her up against the “biggest guy in the gym” and then three boxers at once. She thought she was going to be tossed aside, when the championship coach told her to show up the next morning at 5:30 am.
What followed was “a lot of hard work, a very hard time where I found myself getting my butt kicked regularly,” she recalled. But she persevered and one day found herself at her first Canadian championships.
“My opponent was the three time national defending champion,” she said. The years of pounding in the ring, all those battles, allowed her to look across the ring at that intimidating figure and have the confidence to be able to say, “I did everything I could.” It led her to her first Canadian championship.
To achieve her next goal Ms. Spencer would have to travel to St. Petersburg, Russia and then, two weeks before she was to leave, after months of training heavily, a call came from the executive director of the program.
“‘Mary, I have bad news, the world championships have been cancelled’,” she recalled. “I asked, ‘you mean postponed, they will happen at a later date? ‘No, they are not going to happen’.” The body blow was intense. The executive director told her there was barely a five percent chance of the world championships would go ahead, a 95 percent chance that they would not.
Many if not most would have given up, stopped training and gone on with some other dream.
“I told myself if the opportunity came back, I would be ready to win,” she said. She continued her training regimen.
The next call was good news, bad news. The games were on but she had to be ready to go within days. “Out of 13 on the team, seven could not go,” she said. “They either hadn’t trained or were off weight.” In those championships, she was judged to be the best boxer, pound for pound, of any in the world. That is a designation that no Canadian boxer, male or female, has ever attained.
In her championship road, Ms. Spencer was nearly always down on points, losing in the final round. “I would let my hands go,” she said. Her opponents never really knew what hit them.
The challenges kept coming. A tournament where her schedule was changed and she literally had to walk off of a bus taxi that had been flagged down outside her hotel on the other side of Istanbul in Turkey and into the ring against the very best the world had to offer. She was losing, time and again.
“You don’t see the score board, the fans in the audience can see it, your corner can see it, but you cannot,” she said of her the fight that led her to be able to compete in the Olympics. “All you have to go by are the cheers of her fans and the cheers of your fans.” At first the cheers were going back and forth, first her opponent’s and then her own. Then the cheers were only coming from the other side. She was losing badly. “I let my hands go,” she recalled. “If I was going to lose, she was going to know she was in a fight. I was going down swinging.” She started out the round with a score tied at 7-7 and was clearly losing in the last five seconds of the final round. The end of the round she was met by silence, from both sides. “I looked at her side, they were not celebrating, I looked at my corner, and everyone was standing there with their mouths open.” According to the computer scoring system, it was a tie, the score was 14-14. It took an eternity for the recount. Then her side erupted in cheers. Against all odds, she had won. The final score was 30-29.
Ms. Spencer had never given up.
“I hope you can use my story in your own challenges,” she said. “Attitude, when the situation is out of your control, it is how you react to it that makes all the difference in your life.”
The long lineup to have pictures taken with the champion said volumes about how her address was received. The rest of the program was slightly delayed by the enthusiasm of the crowd.
The rest of the conference was filled with workshops delivering many of the tools Anishinaabe community members can utilize to find their own paths to destiny.
Raw Diet with Sarah Blackwell, Niimdah Powwow Fitness with Sophie Pheasant, Our Story to Healing with Mary Elliott and Anti-bullying with the UCCM Police comprised one series of workshops, while Nutrition Bingo with Julie Rochford-Wood, Badminton with Mark Peltier, Painting Your Animal Spirit with Mark Seabrook and Personal Empowerment for Healthy Lifestyles with Alex McComber completed the second series.
Following the lunchtime speaker, again Alex McComber on diabetes, the second series of workshops began with Sustainable Food Sources by Cody Leeson, Zumba with Colleen Mailous, Traditional Hoop Dancing with Gordie Odjig and Team Building with Sarah Seabrook and after a short break Healthy Smoothies with Olive Li, Break Dancing with Curtis Kagige, Traditional Storytelling with Alma Jean Migwans and Indigenous Perspectives on Mental Health with Dan Garcia.
On this weekend, everyone walked away feeling like champions.