Paving the Way - exclusive interview with Stacey Copeland

Paving the Way - exclusive interview with Stacey Copeland

Published On Tuesday, May 26, 2020By Anish Parekh
Related Tags: Stacey Copeland

Stacey Copeland talked exclusively to BBN's Anish Parekh

“My granddad was different compared to people of his generation. He had two daughters. He took my aunty on as an apprentice plumber and my mum was always sporty, so he always instilled in them both that it doesn’t matter if you’re a girl, you can do anything,” says Stacey Copeland, giving me an indication of where her drive for gender equality stems from.

Copeland, from Hyde, is a former professional footballer, turned boxer who holds the distinct honour of being the first British women’s Commonwealth champion as a super-welterweight. She hosts a show on BBC Radio Manchester, works in a school on children’s personal development and has delivered a Tedx talk.

Despite that impressive list of achievements, Copeland, who is 38 years old, feels like she still has much to achieve. Her brain-child, Pave The Way was founded in 2017 and recently gained full charity status. Through it she hopes to create equal opportunities for people to chase their dreams and do what they love regardless of their gender.

As a young child, Copeland, who is 5-0 as a professional, was first taken to the boxing gym by her dad and granddad, both of whom had boxed before. It was here where her affinity for sport began to grow, and her fight for acceptance and equality began.

“Their attitude was that whatever I love to do, I should be able to do. They were the one’s that took me to the boxing gym and I absolutely loved it.”

As her love for boxing grew, Copeland continued to train and develop her skills under the watchful eye of her doting grandfather, even making a trip to New York with her club to train at some of the most famous gyms in the Big Apple.

However, her youthful exuberance, talent and even her granddad could not shield her from the harsh realities, which prevented the young Copeland from achieving even modest aspirations in the boxing ring.

“Me and my mates went to my granddad one day and said we want to get carded and he looked at me and said, ‘you can’t box kid’, and told me that it was illegal for girls to box. I just couldn’t believe it” she says incredulously.

As she continued to advance her interest in sports, she noticed that not only was the law against her but so were her peers at school. Rather than encourage her to flourish they denigrated her for failing to conform to the societal expectations of her gender, that left her mind swirling and emotions fraught.

“Each comment isn’t a massive thing on their own, but I use the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ analogy sometimes. The things you hear about yourself in your formative years and early in adulthood can have an impact,” she says, as she discusses some of the bullying she experienced.

Being regularly labelled as “shim” and “shemale” wore her down and threatened to shatter her self-esteem. “After a while it felt like there was something wrong with me and that I was a weirdo. I was ashamed of who I was and what I was doing, because those were the constant messages I was getting from other people. It takes time to realise and understand what stereotyping or sexism is because as a kid, the way you are being treated is the norm and you don’t know anything else. But as you get older you think ‘oh my god, the significance of that (comment) has made an impact.'”

Ever the fighting enthusiast, Copeland fell down the stairs whilst reenacting the “crane kick scene” from the popular martial arts film, Karate Kid and broke her shoulder. The injury disrupted her return to the boxing gym but in the interim she discovered that Stockport County had a girls football team and as soon as she was fit enough, decided to train with them.

“I didn’t need my shoulder for football in the same way as I did for boxing so I went along to the training session and for the first time there were all these girls just like me, who lived and breathed football and talked about shin-pads and the latest ‘Adidas Predator’ football boots.

“It gave me a sense of belonging, it was like my tribe and because the FA was starting to get involved in women’s football, there was a structure forming with leagues and teams, I was ready to compete, so quite naturally I veered towards football.”

Being part of a successful team and excelling in a sport that she was passionate about helped to build Copeland’s confidence and soon she was riding on the crest of a wave. Whilst working part-time at a warehouse, she received news that she was selected for the England’s under-18s women’s football team. Understandably elated, she entered her manager’s office and requested time off to fulfill her dream of representing her country. Sadly, her boss did not share her excitement.

“I went to my boss and showed him my letter. He made some jokes and said ‘you want me to give you a week off so you can play for a women’s football team’. I said I would take it unpaid and he reluctantly agreed but I left his office feeling really small and felt like an idiot for making such a big deal about playing for a women’s football team.”

Although Copeland got her wish to have a week off and play in the tournament, her boss’ words continued to ring in her ears and tarnished what should have been a proud moment. “When it came to the actual game, I remember standing in the lineup and listening to the anthem, but my manager's words were on my mind. I was thinking ‘this isn’t the proper team, this is the girls  one, it isn’t the same. Sometimes what people say does impact you even without you realising.”

In spite of this setback, Copeland’s talent with the ball at her feet was insuppressible and she progressed with her football career. She competed at the highest level, in professional leagues in America and Sweden, and played in an FA cup final before calling time on her successful career and immediately seeking a new arena where she could demonstrate her athletic gifts.

When the ban on women’s boxing lifted in 1998, Copeland was presented with a window of opportunity that was too good to resist. The desire she had as an 11 year old girl to box could finally be satisfied thanks to the tireless efforts of three women –Jane Couch, the pioneering boxer, barrister Dinah Rose and solicitor Sarah Leslie.

Couch was already a double world champion and fought against the British Boxing Board of Control with Leslie and Rose for women’s boxing to be made legal in Britain. At a time when gender stereotypes were rife on television, radio and newspapers, the three women were constantly demeaned with derogatory, sexist language.

The opposition barrister was Bernard Buckley whose case was built around the absurdly archaic notion that “many women suffer from premenstrual tension which makes them more emotional and more liable and accident-prone. They are too fragile to box and they bruise easily.”

The three women fought defiantly, as they won a landmark case, by centering their argument around sex discrimination and the restraint of trade. At 30 years old, Jane Couch was finally able to box in Britain and with her, so could many other aspiring female boxers, like Stacey Copeland, who for too long were told that they weren’t good enough.

Copeland counts Couch, Leslie and Rose as her inspirations. “I’ve become friends with Jane Couch over the years. When I think about what I’ve benefited from, by what Jane, Sarah and Dinah have made possible, I’m grateful and that’s why I feel driven to do my bit now.”

A gripe that she has is with the constant comparisons between men’s and women’s sport. “You have to look at women’s sport in and of itself. What has been achieved in the short amount of time that women’s boxing has been legal has been incredible. Now we are on big televised shows, in the Olympics and in terms of football, the women are filling stadiums and have gotten to a world cup semi-final. The way it has inspired others is phenomenal really.”

Although women’s participation in sport has increased year-on-year, a poll carried out by showed that girls between the ages of 8 and 18 are far less likely to play sports outside of school than boys of the same age. A third of girls asked, said that they didn’t feel good enough to take part. 43% of all children felt that it was easier for boys to take part in grassroots sport than girls. One quarter of the pollsters said that they would like to play sports that are stereotypically played by the opposite gender.

The findings are sobering and point towards a number of social and institutional barriers, as being to blame for the lack of participation and Copeland has ideas on how to provide a solution.

“Schools most definitely have a key role, particularly with how genderised the P.E. curriculum is,” says Copeland, who is also a European silver medallist. “We still have the same ideas as we did during the industrial revolution where football and rugby are for boys, and hockey, netball and rounders for girls, I think ‘Jesus, boys should be able to do netball too, girls should be able to play rugby.’ The women got to the final of the world cup for God’s sake but we still don’t have it in schools for girls – it’s weird.”

Copeland recognises the affect teachers can have on the psyche of young people and offers them advice on how to communicate with greater empathy. “They should be taught during teachers training not to use certain language, like calling a boy a girl as an insult – that should be gone.”

Then there’s the inescapable influence of the media and how they report on sport. “It struck me last year during the ‘Sports Personality of the Year’ where they were talking about how well the cricket team did and I knew the women’s team had a great year too but then they showed footage of the men’s team and I thought ‘you just assumed that we all knew you were talking about the men.’ Which is why they should have ‘men’s’ at the front of these teams because by doing that, you’re acknowledging that there’s also a women’s team and that we matter too.

“That’s how they do it in athletics. Imagine them saying, ‘And now we have the 100 metres and later, we’ve got the women’s one.’ It just doesn’t make sense.”

Social media has come with many benefits. It has allowed people to keep in touch, share photos, interact with celebrities and build professional networks. However, it also provides a platform for bullies to be creatively cruel and to chip away at the brittle confidence of young victims who have no safe sanctuary away from their tormentor’s.

An international study conducted by the OECD in 2019, concluded that head-teachers in the UK are more likely to have reports of pupils from their schools suffer online abuse more than anywhere else in the world.

Copeland believes that it is time for the government to enforce stricter legislation in order to make these platforms accountable.

“To try and keep the positives, we need to balance and offset the dangers,” she says. “Platforms need to be more responsible. If they have technology that can target promoted posts to young people, how do they not have the technology to take down harmful and dangerous content? They need to be held accountable but without government intervention, they won’t do it because it hurts them in the pocket.

“If a pub allows drug dealing in their business then they’re held accountable, same with if a teacher harms a student in schools, so why should it be any different for social media companies?”

Throughout our conversation, Copeland is introspective, she has the unique ability to reflect on her past and articulate her thoughts and feelings fluently. She understands how certain situations made her feel, why she felt that way and how to respond to the negativity she was confronted with in a positive manner. Therefore it was no surprise when she had the special opportunity to share her story and life lessons in a Tedx talk, earlier this year.

Despite being a confident public speaker, having delivered numerous talks at schools, this was different. Tedx has a massive global following with 24.5 millions YouTube subscribers. This was her chance to reach out to people who are made to feel like they are restricted by social expectations and feel ostracised – rather than lauded – for their talents.

“I was really nervous for this. I wanted to get it right and to connect with people,” she says passionately. “If you can get people to feel something, then it might make them act on the emotion (to make a difference).”

The talk was a rousing success and the reaction from the audience was unforgettable for Copeland. “The moment at the end was unbelievable with everyone on their feet applauding.”

However, it was after the talk, when Copeland went into the lobby and spoke to some of the audience members did she realise the profound affect she had with her talk. “It was really special. I hugged about a thousand people, they were tearful, they were emotional and so many people shared their personal difficulties and stories with me.

“For me to go from being a person who was laughed at, who felt like a freak and was ashamed of who I was and what I was doing, to then being able to feel truly proud of who I am and be able to experience one of the greatest privileges to connect, inspire and impact others positively is just unbelievable.”

Although the experiences she had whilst growing up were painful, they also moulded Copeland into the defiant and determined person that she is today.

“I’ve learned how to be resilient and sport gives you that,” she says. “I watched a little kid learning to ride his bike with his dad and he fell off it and hurt his knee. He started crying but his dad rubbed it better and encouraged him to get back on and try again. He got on and as he rode past me I cheered him on. That was like a microcosm of what life is. Sometimes you fall off your bike, it hurts and you feel humiliated, but you have to keep trying if you’re going to get something good out of life.

“The falling off your bike scenario happens time and time again but what I’ve learned is that the disappointments don’t last forever, feelings are not facts and time helps to get over the disappointments.”

The greatest boxers in history have all possessed an unwavering fighting spirit when faced with a relentless adversary. They demonstrate an unbreakable will under the pressure of great and powerful foes and are undeterred in their pursuit of victory regardless of the unfavourable odds.

Whilst fighting spirit is illuminated for all to see by the bright lights, shining over a boxing ring, it is not a quality that is exclusively unique to boxers. Stacey Copeland knows that she will need to display the type of fighting spirit that Jane Couch, Sraha Leslie and Dinah Rose showed back in 1998, if she is to accomplish her mission to help people find their place in the world.

“I’m standing on their shoulders,” she says of Couch, Leslie and Rose. “And I want them to know that I’m now doing my bit to push the needle further for the next generation.

“I want Pave The Way to be the biggest it can be. I want it to have a positive impact towards gender equality, to inspire people to do what they love and be who they want to be. I just want to make the biggest difference I possibly can.”

Follow Stacey Copeland on Twitter @scopelandboxer, Instagram @staceycopelandboxer

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