And in the red corner... the primary teacher from Dunfermline

27th April 2001 at 01:00
Taking it on the chin has a special meaning for one group of teachers - and it's nothing to do with school. Yolanda Brooks goes ringside with the women who pack a punch.

Linda Ritchie used to suffer from arthritis. Two years ago, she was enduring severe pain in her neck, shoulders and hips, and her fingers were disfigured by arthritic blisters. Then she found a cure, a surprising cure that had nothing to do with Eastern exercise regimens, macrobiotic diets or copper bangles. What made the pain disappear was boxing. She doesn't know how and she doesn't know why, but her arthritic symptoms have vanished.

Finding respite from the pain was far from Linda's mind when she first walked into Mickey's Gym in Dunfermline. "I started two years ago, not because I'm a teacher and under stress, but because my son was bullied and it got to the stage where he was actually assaulted," says the 47-year-old teacher. "I tried him at various boys' clubs and karate and stuff like that, but he didn't get anything out of it."

Linda finally spoke to Jayne Mowbray, a colleague at Blacklaw primary in Dunfermline, who also happened to attend the all-women St Margaret's Amateur Boxing Club. In the hope that boxing would give her son much-needed confidence, rather than bigger muscles to knock out bullies, Linda took him off to the gym.

Before long boxing became a family affair, with Linda and her other son and daughter also joining the sessions. "At that point I was 11st 3lb and I couldn't skip for peanuts. But I kept coming back and in nine months I lost about two stone without dieting. I've tried running, and all I did was run in ever bigger circles. I tried stuff like step aerobics, but the bit that used to get me was when you had to turn your back on the instructor - I didn't know what you were meant to do with your feet."

Not only have Linda's regular boxing sessions lessened the effects of the arthritis and led to a total weight loss of three stone, it has encouraged an entourage of Dunfermline teachers to follow her to the gym. "When I went out on outreach, some of the teachers would say, 'You're really trim, how do you keep your figure?' And I'd say, 'I do boxing', and they'd laugh. As the weeks went on, they'd say, 'Where does this boxing happen and what time does it start?' Before I knew where I was, there were two or three other teachers standing here with skipping-ropes in their hands, and loving it."

Ellen Shaw is one of the colleagues who followed in Linda's footsteps. The demure 56-year-old head of Blacklaw looks like the last person you'd expect to see pummelling a speedball (a punchball fixed at head height). "I get a lot of guffaws from people who don't believe I box. When I tell other heads I come here, they laugh. They don't believe you until you can convince them otherwise. The initial reaction is always one of mirth."

As well as building up her strength and stamina in a way that yoga, aerobics and swimming never did, boxing provides a great distraction from the day job. "Here, you are doing something totally different, away from your work, and it gives you a healthy mind and a healthy body," says Ellen.

Anne Penman, a 50-year-old behavioural support assistant, attends sessions with her daughters, Fiona, 17, and Laura, 19. While she's into the fitness side, she's not that keen on the contact. "I enjoy boxing as a sport and I know the arguments for and against it," she says. "If you worry about the other person you can have a wee bit of a worry about whether you're actually doing any damage if you hit them in the head. It has taken me a while to cope with that, but when we're sprring here we've got the protective headgear so it doesn't feel as if I'm actually hitting anyone."

St Margaret's is a Lycra-free zone - plain tracksuits, baggy T-shirts and sensible trainers are the outfits of choice - and none of the members looks aggressive, mean or muscle-bound, just extremely fit and slim. Members come from many walks of life, and attend for a variety of reasons, says the coach, Jayne Mowbray, a classroom assistant for children with behavioural problems. "Fitness, toning up, self-defence. It's a challenge, something a bit different, and it's more interesting than playing hockey in the rain."

Jayne, 28, has been boxing for seven years. She took over as coach two years ago, when work commitments forced the previous coach to quit. Although the club has been operating for several years, it was only officially registered with Amateur Boxing Scotland at the end of 2000. The 30-odd members have plenty of enthusiasm, and they've shown their commitment by raising the funds to buy most of the equipment. But while the members are keen and the town respects what they are doing, women still struggle to be taken seriously in the macho, predominantly male world of boxing. "The people in town accept it but the boxing world is less accepting," says Jayne. "It sees us as irrelevant, and it's quite difficult to get taken seriously."

Linda, Ellen, Anne and Jayne are among a growing number of women taking up boxing - not because they've got a point to prove or they've seen Michelle Rodriguez in Girlfight - but because it's a great way to keep fit. Boxing is about movement, co-ordination, balance, concentration and confidence - throwing the punch is only part of that equation.

In a one-hour training session, they start with skipping, that quickfire style that's the preserve of the boxing gym. As their feet pound the floor, the repetitive cracks of the skipping-ropes cut through the booming dance music.

Warm-up over, they bandage their hands, pull on the practice gloves and try out their combinations on the speedball, the floor to ceiling ball or the heavy punchbags. They can also practise their punches with Jayne, who wears hook and jab pads, or put on the headgear and bodyguards before climbing into the makeshift ring to spar. (In official bouts, women have to wear chest pads - hard plastic cups that are strapped on outside the bra - as well as gum shields and other protective clothing.) The hour is rounded off with torturous circuit training that includes rapid-fire sit-ups, press-ups, squat thrusts and one particularly painful exercise that can be best described as low-level Cossack dancing. An out-of-breath Anne says: "Initially I came because I wanted to lose weight and I didn't think the training would be so hard. I don't know what I expected, but it certainly opened my eyes. Over the years I've done aerobics, aquaerobics and keep-fit classes. This is the hardest training. But it's the most enjoyable."

While many adults laugh or disapprove of women's boxing, children are much more open-minded, says Linda. "The children at school had the skipping-ropes out, and they didn't expect me to be able to do it. They said, 'Where did you learn to skip like that?' And I said, 'I do boxing'. The kids don't think you're weird or scary. Boxing doesn't do that for you. It doesn't make you want to go out there and hit somebody. It gives you an amount of confidence and does your self-esteem a lot of good."

Women-only boxing sessions take place at Mickey's Gym on Bruce Street in Dunfermline,from 6-7pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.For further information, telephone: 07968 850554

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