We caught up with two soldiers who are hoping to represent their country for boxing at olympics
'This is the best training facility you can ask for really,' says Gunner Tori-Ellis Willetts as she gestures to the enormous gym filled with boxing rings, punching bags, and every other bit of boxing paraphernalia you could care to imagine. 'This is a really good place to be. You know that you’re getting the best from the best people.'
She’s not wrong. We’re at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield and it’s basically a medal factory. It’s here that Team GB’s boxing programme is based, and have no doubt, this is the best boxing programme in the world. The Performance Director is none other than Rob McCracken, current trainer of former IBF, IBO, WBO and WBA (Super) World Heavyweight Champion Anthony Joshua.
For boxing alone, they have a roster of dedicated experts armed with the latest methods of improving performance – we’re talking individual experts for sports medicine, physiotherapy and soft tissue therapy, strength and conditioning, physiology, psychology, performance analysis and even a lifestyle coach. If you want to have your hand raised at the Olympics with a gold medal hung around your neck, this is exactly where you want to be.
For Tori and fellow Gunner (a rank equivalent to private in the Royal Artillery) Karriss Artingstall, winning that Olympic gold is the dream. 'I followed Nicola Adams as an amateur, and I actually got to go to the 2012 Olympics and watch a few of the amateurs in the tournaments,' says Tori. 'I loved it and thought ‘this is where I want to get to. I want to go to the Olympics and win a medal. I want to be like Nicola Adams.'
If the Olympics is the goal, there’s no shortage of inspiration here. The room is ringed with photos of Olympic medal-winning boxers that trained in this very gym – great fighters such as Adams, Luke Campbell, Joshua, James DeGale, Amir Khan and Audley Harrison look down proudly. The message is clear, if not inescapable: this could be you.
Right now, both soldiers’ immediate focus is to crack on with training, box regularly in tournaments for Team GB, and try to come back with some gold medals. That success will be important, because the nature of the Olympic programme is rather brutal. There is only one Olympic spot for each weight – yet there is more than one athlete on the programme for each weight. If you’re a boxer on the programme, that’s some pretty unsavoury maths.
The result is a bizarre situation in which your teammates, with whom you train regularly, are your direct competition – they are the only people standing in the way of your Olympic dream.
'I guess there is always that bit of atmosphere,' says Tori, who has just been promoted to the full-time ‘potential podium’ squad. 'You always want to be better in sparring. You want that Number One spot. You want to be going to tournaments. You want to be winning medals. So it is competitive.'
It’s an odd situation, but most things about boxing are. It’s one of the only Olympic sports for which a country can’t send professional athletes – even though most wouldn’t get on the team anyway. It’s pretty fitting then that both Tori and Karriss’s journeys to this point have also been rather unusual. Tori actually began fighting as a kickboxer, but switched to boxing because she wanted a chance to fight at the Olympics. Later, an encounter with the Army boxing team would help take Tori’s career to a new level.
'When I used to box as a civilian, I saw the Army boxing team at Haringey Box Cup,' she recalls. 'So I approached one of the boxers and asked ‘how do you become a full-time boxer in the Army? I’d really like to join and this is what I’d want to do.’ She told me I’d have to do my training, and once I was in, if I was at an elite level, I could join the team through a trial.'
Sure enough, Tori applied to join the Army and did her basic training at Winchester for 14 weeks, before she joined the Royal Artillery for Phase Two of her training in Larkhill. After joining her regiment, it wasn’t long before the Army saw her potential as a boxer and, after a trial, she was added to the Army boxing team.
Karriss, meanwhile, joined the Army after deciding she didn’t want to work in an office-based environment. 'I needed to be hands-on and active, so I thought the Army was the right place to be,' she says. Karriss had boxed before joining the Army, but it was two years before she rekindled her love of the noble art. 'I got in touch with somebody who was involved in boxing in the Army. I joined at regimental level at first. From there I went on to Corps level and boxed in the Haringey Box Cup for the Royal Artillery. I won and progressed to Army level and got into the Army Gold squad.'
Training for the big time
That’s when things got serious for both boxers. Tori and Karriss explain that when you reach the Army Gold squad, you’re performing at such a high level that the Army gives you the opportunity to represent them and box full time. And it’s a pretty major step up in training.
'You’re training three times a day, doing strength and conditioning, runs, bag work, pad work, technical work, sparring with all different kinds of people, and you get individual coaching,' Tori explains. 'Whereas, when I was working on civvy street, I’d be going to work for eight hours, coming home, going to the gym for two hours, and doing that every single day. It took a toll on me. I think three sessions a day in the Army is harder, but because you’re so dedicated to the sport, you’re actually doing what you want to do.'
'I knew the Army could help me push on, but I didn’t realise the regiment would be so supportive at such a high level,' adds Karriss. 'You get all your strength and conditioning, all your nutrition, you’ve got everything there that you need. My regiment offers me support and allows me the time off work to just focus solely on boxing. Even when I’m up here training with Team GB, they’re supportive. I had my regiment come down the other week just to see how things ran up here. And obviously, they help with kit and that, because, believe it or not, even just a bit of headgear is expensive and the regiment help support and fund that for you. I still get my Army wage, which obviously helps a lot with the travel between my base camp and up here and with the kit that I need etc.'
This rigorous new training regime – which closely mirrors that of Team GB – prepared both boxers for the high demands of this elite level of the sport, and with it came immediate success. Within only two years of joining the Army, Tori won the England Elite 51kg title, and shortly followed that up with a big victory in the Three Nations title. With that sweet success came a call-up from Team GB, and things have only got better since: 'I boxed recently in the England Amateur Championships and successfully defended my title to become a two-time national champion. And I’ve just got back from Poland – my first international tournament for GB – where I won bronze. It’s a good start.'
Karriss also shot up through the ranks after winning the England Development Championships in 2016. Then, in 2018 she smashed the Elite Championships and was very quickly on Team GB’s radar. She has since won her last two international tournaments in Eastern Europe.
'It’s class because the people you’re against are not just from your country; you’re against whatever country is put in front of you. In Hungary, I boxed Thailand, Hungary and then Russia. So beating the Hungarian in her country was unreal. I had to give it everything I had; I was boxing back-to-back days… I just had to empty the tank and get the win. I was over the moon with it.'
Road to recovery
But with this huge step-up in intensity and competition comes the inevitable increased risk of injury – a terrifying ever-present danger and constant threat to the Olympic dream. One that both boxers are all too familiar with.
'I damaged the tendons in my wrist,' says Tori. 'It was a massive setback. I couldn’t bend it, couldn’t brush my hair or unscrew a bottle or anything like that. So it was quite hard. I was thinking that I wasn’t going to punch again. It was really tough mentally and physically, not being able to train properly.'
Her wrist injury saw Tori sidelined for 10 months, and Karriss is just finishing recovering from a knee injury – not that you’d know it as she dances around the ring, flashing the leather with some slick combinations. Thankfully though, as Karriss explains, with the step up in training comes a step up in support.
'The physios are all over it,' she says. 'You get seen once or twice a day. They see how you’re feeling during sessions, or help you warm up.'
'It’s hard, it gets into your head when you’re injured, because you can’t train as much as you’d want to. It’s a bit disheartening. But you’ve just got to be here, you’ve got to show your face and do what the physios say. And they do everything they possibly can – the rehab, the exercises, taping up, even the little things, just keeping an eye on it and making sure you’re headed in the right direction.'
With both boxers now fighting fit, focus returns to Olympic preparations and an upcoming training camp in Germany, in which both boxers will continue to hone their skills and test their mettle against top-class opposition. While the 2020 Olympics, the Commonwealth Games and the 2024 Olympics are the immediate concern, the rise of the professional game in women’s boxing means the paid ranks of the sport are also becoming a more viable option. With the likes of Katie Taylor now lighting up pay-per-view events and boxing in front of a sold-out crowd at New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden, is the possibility of turning pro tempting?
'I’ve thought about it,' says Karriss. 'I’m a long way off that though. I want to try to qualify for the Olympics first, and even if I don’t, I still want to stay on because the Commonwealths are only two years after that, I want to give them a bash. I’m 24 now, so maybe after the Commonwealths I’d look into turning pro, or even look at staying on another cycle until the next Olympics, it just depends how everything progresses, I’ve definitely got a good few years left here though.'
It’s clear that neither boxer is really looking past the Olympics right now – and given the level of competition, they can ill afford to. Nor is it lost on them the incredible opportunity that stands before them. For an up-and-coming boxer, this is undoubtedly the dream. 'I love all of it,' says Tori.Photos: Andrew Shaylor