By Joe Friesen
Stephanie Hart stands out in the boxing ring — she’s wearing the wrong shoes.
“Until I win my first six fights I won’t buy myself my first pair of boxing shoes,” says Hart, who currently sports basketball shoes in the ring. “If it takes a year and a half before I win my first six fights then that’s what it’s going to take. These will be the shoes to carry me.”
Hart, a 21-year-old guard on the Ryerson women’s basketball team, is also an up-and-coming amateur boxer. She grew up in the leafy Westmount neighbourhood of Montreal and was a Concordia Stinger for one term in 2000, before deciding to come to Ryerson to study urban and regional planning. She’s been fighting for just three months, but already there is talk of title belts
On the basketball court Hart is a smooth-shooting team player who brings stability to the Rams’ lineup. She was originally spotted by Rams coach Sandy Pothier on the Canadian Maccabiah games basketball team. At 16 she was Canada’s youngest player at the 1997 games, considered the Jewish Olympics, in Israel.
After last season, Hart needed a break from basketball and wanted to find an alternative workout that could give her an edge on the hardwood.
“It’s so intense during the year that the last thing I wanted to do during the summer was play basketball,” she says. “Originally I was getting into kickboxing, thinking that would help with my agility and strength.”
Before Hart knew it, she was training five times a week.
“The teacher came up to me and asked if I had ever considered sparring,” she says. “So I tried it one afternoon and I swear, the second I stepped into the ring it was like love at first sight.”
Conrad Pla, a former world kick boxing champion at the TriStar gym in Montreal, was the first to recognize Hart’s potential, as well as her ambition. He told her that if she wanted to get serious about fighting, she should choose boxing rather than kickboxing.
“He knew I was a competitive athlete and there isn’t much for women in kickboxing,” Hart says. “He definitely led me in the right direction.”
Returning to Toronto at the end of summer, Hart was determined to continue her pugilistic training. She was accepted by the Cabbagetown Boxing Club, home to some of the best fighters in Canadian boxing history. Hart’s trainer, Peter Wylie, says it’s not unusual for a young woman to want to mix it up in the ring.
“Women really got into it about eight or nine years ago,” says Wylie. “They were older as a rule, often starting in their thirties. Now the age is coming down, we’re getting girls 17 or 18 years old training. Because of the exposure you’re getting a younger crowd who want to be involved in the sport.”
At 5-foot-9 Hart is tall, quick and strong. More importantly, she has the requisite fighting bravery.
“There’s an old adage,” Wylie says, “that says you don’t know a fighter until they get hit. It separates the girls from the women pretty quickly.”
He remembers that with Hart “there was no panic in her face. It was more, ‘OK, you hit me, but now I’m resolute in getting back at you. In fact, there was maybe a little fire in her eyes.”
Hart fought her first amateur match in Montreal on Nov. 2 in front of a crowd of 250 people, including French music star Mitsou. She won all three rounds in a convincing victory over an inexperienced opponent. Although Wylie says Hart was very lucky to be matched against a woman she could handle, he’s pleased that she earned a victory and gained some valuable experience. For instance, she knows her conditioning will have to be stepped up.
“In amateur boxing you go three rounds, that’s it,” says Hart. “But let me tell you, after I had my fight, I felt like I had played three games of basketball.” As for the other girl, Hart laughs, “she was more exhausted and a little more beat up than I was. Hey, I won you know.”
Hart had to sneak out of a family reunion the night of her fight, not because her family disapproves of the sport, but because they still don’t quite believe she’s a boxer.
“[My father] doesn’t necessarily think women should be boxing. He’s a bit old fashioned that way,” she says. “My mom was like ‘you better not break your nose.’”
Hart’s willingness to put her nose at risk has proves baffling to many of her friends and family.
“I know a lot of people would have a hard time understanding why a woman would want to put themselves through that and I just think people have misconceptions of what we’re capable of,” she says. “No, of course I don’t enjoy getting punched in the face or putting myself in a position where I could get hurt … but until you do it, you don’t really understand.”
Rams basketball coach Sandy Pothier says she is “not thrilled” about Hart’s new pursuit. She worries about the possibility of an injury and says she won’t be going to see any fights this season.
“I’d go see her fight after the season is over, but I don’t think I’d want to see her get hit in the face or anything like that,” says Pothier.
Despite her reservation, Pothier believes the three-point shooting specialist has the focus and commitment necessary to cope with being a two-sport star as well as a scholar.
“She’s an intelligent player who understands the way we want to play,” says Pothier. “She’s a loyal, committed and mature person who works hard and doesn’t make excuses.”
A chalkboard in the tiny Cabbagetown gym where Hart trains reads “all success or failure can be attributed to effort and ability, not luck.”
That was also the motto of one of Hart’s childhood heroes. She says that Rocky Balboa, the celluloid boxer played by Sylvester Stallone, has always been an inspiration to her.
As a young girl Hart hung his photo on her bedroom wall and says she still admires the ideals of hard work and perseverance that Rocky embodies.
In addition to her demanding basketball schedule and full-time course load, Hart boxes four or five times a week. On a typical day she will finish class at 3:45 p.m., train at the boxing club until 4:45 p.m. before a two-hour basketball practice at 5 p.m.
“I’m on a tight schedule,” she says. “It keeps me productive. And the busier I am the better I do.”
Her trainer feels that Hart’s sense of dedication may be what ultimately sets her above the competition.
“She’s got short-term goals, she’s got mid-term goals and I think she’s sensible enough to know that she has to work to get them,” says Wylie. “This is not a passing fancy with her. She wants to do her best to be the best she can be.”
It’s a long way from being an amateur with one fight’s worth of experience to competing in the Olympic games, but Hart is not shy about her ambition.
“I would do anything to box in the Olympics,” she says. “I’m a firm believer that if there’s anything I really, really want I can go after it and succeed.”
For all her dreams, Hart refuses to get ahead of herself.
Determined not to look like a dilettante in the ring, she wears her basketball shoes as a symbol of humility.
“I can say I want to go to the Olympics and all that, but my next fight I might get beaten to a pulp and that’ll be it. And then I’d be stuck with these brand new boxing shoes, these brand new gloves and I’d have nowhere to go,” she says.
“I definitely, definitely look forward to the day when I can buy my first pair of boxing shoes. It’s going to be quite the moment.”