Londra 2012 lit my Olympic dream – now I want a boxing medal for real

Eleven years ago, when I was just a little girl with a big dream, I had to call myself Colin and pretend to be a boy so that I could step inside a boxing ring. I was nine and girls were not allowed to box at the famous Repton Boys Club in east London. All these years later I am so happy that the girl who called herself Colin, and tried to disguise her real identity, has arrived in Tokyo to fight for Team GB in the giochi Olimpici. It’s been quite a journey.

My big brother Daniel boxed at the Repton and I copied everything he did. I fell in love with boxing and I convinced our dad he should also take me to the gym. He understood because boxing runs in our blood. One of our ancestors, Sylvia Dubois, was an African-American slave who won her freedom as a bare-knuckle fighter in the 18th century.

Dad is a bit of a rebel and he thought of a way to get past the “boys only” tradition at the Repton. He told me to call myself Carl when we got to the gym but, with nerves jangling inside me, I said “Colin” instead when they asked for my name. It didn’t matter because I managed to keep my secret at the Repton for a year.

The head coach was against the idea of girls boxing but, thinking I was a boy, he told my dad after my first session: “Your son Colin has something special.”

We kept quiet and I enjoyed beating all the boys in sparring. Another trainer said that the boy called Colin was destined to be a world champion one day. But the situation became complicated when the head coach arranged a fight for me that involved a medical before we stepped into the ring. My dad had to tell them the truth. It was the end of my time at Repton.

My dad struggled to convince Dale Youth Boxing Club, which was in the basement of the old Grenfell Tower, to allow me to join. Gary McGuinness, the head coach, had the same “no girls” policy as Repton. Dad urged Gary to give me a chance.

Gary was so impressed after one training session that I could finally be myself – a boxer called Caroline. He soon told me I would box at the Olympics and, 10 anni dopo, Gary’s prediction is about to come true.

We lived in Greenwich when London 2012 was held just 20 minutes away in Stratford. I was still boxing for Dale and my Olympic dream started during that unforgettable summer. Usain Bolt, Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis were the stars of the track but I only had eyes for the ring. Of course I followed Anthony Joshua, who won gold, but I was captivated by Nicola Adams and Natasha Jonas. It was the first time women had ever been allowed to box in the Olympics and, watching it on telly with my family, I was blown away.

I remember the atmosphere as Natasha and Katie Taylor walked to the ring. The noise was incredible and it was the moment when women’s boxing became very real to me. Katie is now the most famous female boxer on the planet but she nearly lost to Natasha when they met again as professionals in one of the great fights of 2021. Nine years ago they inspired me. So did Nicola as she became the first British woman to win an Olympic gold medal for boxing.

Four years later, in Rio, Nicola won gold again while Katie lost to Finland’s Mira Potkonen in one of the shocks of those 2016 Olimpiadi. I watched those Games even more closely because I was following their Olympic path.

I faced Potkonen, now the world No 2, in June this year when I had to box in the European Olympic qualifying tournament in Paris. I had been the Olympic youth champion and world youth champion, and unbeaten after 40 junior fights, but this was boxing at another level. It was the toughest test I could have had in the first round in Paris but I always believed I would beat Potkonen. We had sparred in Colorado and I knew I could handle her roughhouse style. My only fear was that I would let the occasion get to me in my first major adult tournament after we had lost the previous 16 months to Covid.

If I’d lost to Potkonen I would not have been on the plane to Tokyo. So there was a lot of pressure and Potkonen, a 39, is almost twice my age with huge experience. I couldn’t be sure I would handle the situation – even if I believe I can beat every woman in the world who fights at my weight. I’ve got the talent so I would have been devastated if I had allowed my Olympic dream to crumble.

It sounds crazy but I pretended that I had brought my 11-year-old self to ringside so she could watch me. I fought my heart out so I would not let down that little girl who had such a beautiful dream. She would get up at six in the morning to run before school because she dreamed of being a boxer. That little girl carried the dream that had been lit inside her at London 2012.

I beat Potkonen and Rebecca Nicoli of Italy to seal my Olympic qualification. In Tokyo, I want to make my 11-year-old self even more proud of me. I am going to imagine she is ringside again as I make another of her dreams come true by winning an Olympic medal.

Caroline Dubois will write a column for the Guardian during the Tokyo Olympics

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