From Breathless to Badass
Tuesday, January 3 2017
All Laura Stokes really had in mind that day, about two years ago, was to get in shape so she could keep up with her very active brother and sister, who loved to go on long hikes in the woods.
“I was breathless, out of shape and ashamed, “ says Stokes, a 20-something who’d been too busy caring for very sick patients in her job as a pediatric oncology nurse at Boston Children’s Hospital to give any thought to taking care of herself. “I definitely wasn’t living a very healthy life.”
When she couldn’t keep up with her brother one day, he decided to help her make a change. He heard about a boxing gym near her house, so for Christmas, he gave her a pair of boxing gloves and three training sessions with personal trainer Tracey Pierce, at Elite Boxing & Fitness.
“It was really cool, but it took me until the following August to actually make that first appointment,” says Stokes.
She joined the gym, despite the fact that she “hated every single minute of every training session. And that was just conditioning. “
It took Stokes almost 9 months to finally try boxing.
“It was another year later that I went with all the girls from the gym to see Liz Weber’s fight in the Belles of the Brawl,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘this is the coolest thing EVER!’ but couldn’t quite see myself there. Then I read something Liz posted about her Haymakers journey.”
Weber, who’d found boxing after a rough patch in her life, wrote, “…I can't even explain the mental/emotional shift, except to say that two years ago I felt like a loser, and now I feel like a fighter, whether things are going my way or not.”
“That quote made me realize that Liz had started like me, and she did this amazing thing,” says Stokes. “I didn’t think it was something a normal person could do!”
The day after Weber’s fight, Stokes found herself at the gym with Tracey “half-joking” about her doing Haymakers the following year.
“Literally a week later, I started training with Zach,” says Stokes.
That was November 2015.
Stokes will be the first to fess up to being a tough person to coach. She argued. She complained. She resisted. But she met her match in Zach Reay, the boxing director at Elite, who has taken 13 fighters to Haymakers since 2012, including his most recent Belles fighters Michelle Fox, Sue Bator, and Stokes.
Through group classes, team sparring and one-on-one training sessions, Reay pushed Stokes far beyond her limits and slowly, steadily, turned her into a fighter.
“I was not a picnic to train. I had no self esteem, no confidence and no self respect,” she says. “I fought with him a lot. One time he basically screamed at me the entire time. But because of him I understand how boxing works. It’s why he’s so good.”
Stokes also had her own way to stay motivated.
“I started giving myself little rewards for improving endurance or strength,” she says. “So I marked the moments when I could work a 3-minute round without a break, and when I went from barely able to do one proper push up to where I could do 100. When I hit a big weight goal, I gave myself new gloves. When I could do 100 leg lifts, I bought headgear. When I did 10 double-unders in a row, I got a new gear bag.
“And Zach gave me mitts when I hit another weight goal and a T-shirt when I managed a 2-minute plank.”
By the time fight night rolled around, Stokes had crushed all of her goals, including the big one: she lost 90 lbs. over the two years since she first set foot in the gym.
“Boxing changed everything for me, at home and at work,” she says. “Training for Haymakers was really hard. In order to train before some of my nursing shifts, I had to get up at 3:30 in the morning. I felt really sorry for myself. I would think, ‘why am I doing this? It is much harder than I ever thought it would be.’ But then one day, I was outside a young patient’s room—a teenager who was on a lot of meds and had tubes everywhere and he always woke up feeling really crappy, and it hit me. That—THAT—is so much harder than what I was doing. I don’t have to go through that, like he does, and I don’t have to be his mom or siblings watching him go through it.
“So yeah, working with kids—cancer patients—this job gave me exceptional perspective on the training. I never looked at it the same way after that.”
As word of her Haymakers training spread through the hospital, Stokes was finding a groundswell of support among her patients and their families, as well as the medical staff.
“I was getting so much inspiration from both the gym and at work,” she says. “Some of my coworkers did challenges with me like running or box jumps or pushups. And some of the kids liked to help me by punching me. They were in it to win it with me. They believed in me so I started to believe in myself. I was starting to feel proud.”
In all, Stokes sold 110 tickets to the fight and raised almost $17,000 in primarily small donations.
By the time she climbed in the ring, no one was more ready than Stokes.
“I had everybody there. I just knew I had to do my best for them and for myself. And then— I was so shocked when I won!”
Two of Stokes’ younger patients — Kinzie, 7, and Paris, 13, even served as Ring Card Girls for fight night and both walked the ring together for Stokes’ bout.
“That was incredible,” she says. “Paris said it was one of the coolest nights of her life, partly because she got to meet other people who had been through cancer. I had a bloody nose after the fight, and Kinzie said to me: ‘this is funny, you usually are the one who takes care of my bloody noses!’”
As for Stokes, nothing else in her life could compare with what she’d just done.
“It really was the best night of my life,” she says. “I just wanted to soak it all in and be in the moment. In the last two years, my life has changed so much.
“Now that the training is done, I am looking for balance, and learning to be happy and healthy,” says Stokes, adding that she’s now enjoying routine 10-mile hikes with her siblings and her dog. “I’m grateful to come out of this experience a smaller—yet bigger—person.”