LONDON (Reuters) - Siona Fernandes went to extreme lengths to push herself out of her comfort zone, swapping the grace and tenderness of classical Indian dance for the blood and bruises of the boxing ring.
Three years after coming home in tears after being smacked in the face during an early sparring session, the Indian-born psychology graduate is now part of the New Zealand team contesting the first Olympic Games women’s boxing tournament.
“My mum was like, how could you think of something like that?” the petite 29-year-old told Reuters, when asked how her family reacted to her sudden change in direction after getting hooked on the sport in a local gym.
”She said ‘couldn’t you have found something else? Boxing means you’re going to get hit in the face’.
“But my dad thought it was cool. He’s a massive fan of Mohammad Ali and he’s very supportive of anything I do. Mum’s will always be mums.”
Apart from the initial shock of taking blows to the face: “I came home nearly in tears at first, it was horrible,” she recalls, the transition from Bharatanatyam dancer to flyweight boxing hope has been a remarkable one.
”Not for a second did I think I would end up boxing in the Olympics,“ she said. ”But boxing for me came down to knowing your fears and being able to conquer your fears.
”It’s not just about punching someone and getting punched, it was about dodging someone.
”It’s like chess, the only difference is in chess you’re not getting hit. In the ring we don’t play, we fight. There is a little bit of human fear and you have to overcome that.
“For human beings stepping outside the comfort zone, not many people want to have that challenge.”
Along with team member Alexis Pritchard, the only two New Zealand boxers at the Games, she has spent three weeks training in Cardiff, often sparring with men, before arriving in the athletes village on Tuesday.
”Back home I‘m sparring with the guys and when I was asked to spar with them in Cardiff I said ‘bring it on’, said Fernandes, who moved from Goa to Auckland when her father landed a job with a district health board in New Zealand.
“They weren’t pulling back. Some of them said I fight ‘like a dude’ so that gives me lots of confidence.”
Not surprisingly for a former dancer, Fernandes delights in the footwork involved in boxing and, quoting one famous Ali quote, said she hopes to float like a butterfly in London.
She clearly has a sting though too, and is nicknamed The Fury in the gym back home.
With women’s boxing making its Games debut with three weight categories, Fernandes said there may be a few who will be surprised by the artistry on display.
”Actually, boxing is quite similar to dancing,“ she said. ”It’s about footwork, balance, coordination and focus.
“It’s a lot about rhythm, you have to remember your moves. In classical dancing you don’t have a beat, you create the beat with your footwork. There is a lot of speed, agility and power.”
With only 12 women in each category and the possibility of a bye in the first round, a medal is not an unrealistic aim for both New Zealand fighters.
Asked what the key will be, Fernandes said: ”I see it as a science, a sweet science. It’s more about strategies to outwit your opponent.
“It’s about two personalities, two personas fighting each other. If you are strategic enough and tactical enough you can outwit an opponent.”
Editing by Greg Stutchbury