Olivia Gerula’s message is simple, even if her journey hasn’t always been.
"You can do whatever you want to do, and be whoever you want to be," she tells the Free Press, while standing inside the lobby of a Charleswood gym Friday morning, echoing what she had just told nearly 20 girls, aged five to 10, before putting them through a spirited boxing workout. "Girls have the ability to outshine the world and break every mould there is out there, and I hope they do."
Shortly after the words exit her mouth, Gerula becomes apologetic, if only for a second, feeling her message might come across too cliché. It’s hard to see it that way, though, when you consider the 38-year-old single mother of two is anything but conventional.
As one of Winnipeg and Canada’s most decorated female boxers, a sport that for decades didn’t allow women to compete and one still dominated by men, Gerula has taken her fair share of hits — literally and figuratively — over a career that has spanned more than 20 years.
A three-time world champion, Gerula has basked in adrenaline-fuelled moments of adoration and knows what it’s like to rub shoulders with some of boxing’s most recognizable figures. Her name has been on a fight card sponsored by Don King, boxing’s most notorious promoter; she has trained alongside Floyd Mayweather Jr., arguably the greatest fighter ever to pull on a pair of gloves.
Gerula has also been cheated by the sport. Years later, she still harbours ill feelings towards the World Boxing Council for costing her a featherweight title in Sweden, where she — and many others in the boxing community — felt the judges ruled unfairly against her, favouring the hometown opponent.
Then there is the all-too-often occurrence of being underestimated by her male training counterparts — though, to be fair, that usually lasts only a minute before she lands a wicked jab to the mouth.
"As soon as you land a shot they’re like, ‘O.K. I’m going to hit you now,’ and everything is good again," she says, laughing.
Through all the ups and downs, Gerula loves the sport with all her heart. Despite a recent setback — following a loss in Estonia last week, in what she says was another questionable ruling by the judges, Gerula dropped to No. 17 in the world, making it the first time in her career that she’s been outside the top 10 — she plans to leave boxing on her own terms, preferring her last fight be in Winnipeg.
After all, Winnipeg is the city where Gerula grew up and which she proudly calls home.
She also knows it’s where she can have the biggest impact, especially when it comes to helping shape the younger generation of female athletes. So she embraces the responsibility that comes with being a role model, even if she doesn’t exactly see herself being all that different from the young girls she talks to.
"I’m just a regular person and in that regard I think it’s easier to relate to me as a fighter or a woman," she says. "As a female boxer, I never ever saw (my gender) as challenges. Even if it was a challenge it was something that I always rose to. I’ve always been that way, that if you make something difficult I’m only going to tackle it even harder."
On Friday, her challenge included keeping the attention of almost 20 young girls, who welcomed Gerula with handmade signs and loud cheers, long enough to teach them a few boxing skills.
Before the group was put through various cardio exercises and taught different punching combos, Gerula spent 20 minutes talking about her journey through life and taking questions. She also shared a few of the life lessons she has learned through an incredible career, including having confidence in who you are and treating others with respect.
Andrea Katz and Allison Gervais own FIT communications. Together, the sisters organize different events in the city aimed at empowering young girls. They invited Gerula to attend Friday’s event, knowing what her presence would do.
"Girls as young as five years old are starting to think about their self-esteem, in both a positive and negative way, and we only want them to think about the amazing things they love about themselves," said Katz.
"Olivia totally represents what we are trying to teach the girls: to be strong, be confident, be sure of yourself. The little girls look up to her and they need those positive sport female role models in their lives."
While many of the girls in attendance had never boxed, all were quick to follow along. For close to an hour, Gerula treated each young athlete — some of whom were wearing inspirational T-shirts, including one that said, "Strong is the new pretty" — the same way she would instruct any other class. When the class ended, some girls stuck around for a few more minutes just to get some extra face time, thrilled with what they had witnessed from the class.
"It’s was a lot of fun," said 10-year-old Jersey Katz. "It’s really cool that Olivia is a girl and she’s a world champion."
It was easy to see just how big an impression Gerula made. Simply by being there, she instilled confidence and joy for all who took part. She might even have inspired Winnipeg’s next world champion.
"A lot of times there’s that social stigma, whether it be at school or just in society, that if you’re a girl doing a ‘boy’ sport then you’re a ‘tomboy,’ and that is something that we need to rid ourselves of," said Katz. "If a girl is strong, or tough or brave, it’s not a bad thing. These are words these girls should be proud of, and you definitely saw that today."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
Updated on Saturday, March 31, 2018 at 9:58 AM CDT: Photos changed.