Nicola Adams is used to being a trailblazer. As a boxer, she fought her way to historic firsts, picking up trophies in a sport that had only relatively recently allowed women to compete, powered by determination and quick feet. She became boxing’s first female gold medal-winner at the London 2012 Olympics. Four years later, in Rio, she successfully defended her title. She retired last year aged 37, but her pioneering spirit is as strong as ever – recently announced as one of the contestants on this year’s Strictly Come Dancing, Adams is the first celebrity to be paired with a same-sex partner. She wanted to do the show for the challenge, she says, “and to show the fun side of me”.
When Adams was approached a few months ago to be on the BBC show, she said she would do it only if she could have a female partner. “I guess it’s just breaking those boundaries and showing people that it’s OK,” she says. “It’s not such an uncommon thing: professional dancers dance with people of the same sex all the time; you dance in a nightclub with your friends. I just wanted to break down the thing of it being a big deal when it’s not really a big deal.” She thinks she will be dancing the traditionally male lead steps and mostly wearing suits. “Dresses aren’t my thing,” she says.
The reaction has been “really positive”, she says. “Which is good to see. I guess it shows that everybody’s mentally evolving and in a place where they’re a lot more open-minded.” Last year, two of the male professionals – Johannes Radebe and Graziano Di Prima – danced together in a routine; although the response was overwhelmingly positive, the BBC received nearly 200 complaints. “There’s always going to be people who don’t like you,” she says. “But I’ve got a lot of people who do.”
She is right about that – there are not many sports stars as beloved as Adams. When she burst into national life in 2012, a tiny powerhouse with a fighting weight of 51kg (8st), she was a joy to watch, in and out of the ring. Her smile was nuclear. She radiated confidence (but never arrogance) and down-to-earth charisma, an uncommon mix of the normal and the extraordinary. Interviewed after her 2012 triumph, she said, in her soothing Leeds accent, she would be celebrating by going to Nando’s. She seemed utterly herself.
In person, nearly a decade on, she is the same. We meet at the London hotel where Adams is staying for a few days; her girlfriend, Ella Baig, a model, is sitting nearby (they live together in Leeds). She recently joked on social media that the pair would set up an account on OnlyFans, where subscribers pay to access (often sexually explicit) photos and videos; Baig already has an account. Adams is not planning the same, but says “any woman should be able to do any career that they choose and I fully support her in everything she does”.
Adams seems shy at first, but soon relaxes; she is funny and quick to laugh. She has a beautiful face. “It’s been a struggle keeping it this way throughout my whole career,” she says. Even as a boxer, she hated being hit in the face. “I was always really defensive and very quick.”
She retains the mental strength common to elite athletes – she has no room for negativity. Her retirement in November was forced when she damaged a pupil in her last fight, retaining her WBO title, and doctors said another blow to the head could mean losing her sight. But it was coming anyway. “I was going to have maybe two more fights,” she says. “So it was really close. I was a bit annoyed, but health always comes first.”
Adams won European, Commonwealth and world titles, on top of the Olympic golds. The only thing she did not achieve was putting on a big fight in Las Vegas (she had been close in 2017, to the point of lacing up her boots, when her opponent failed a blood test and the fight was cancelled). “I’d have loved to have done that,” she says, before invoking the millennials’ mantra: “But it is what it is. I always said that I didn’t want to be one of those fighters where they kept on boxing and then started losing … I’ve retired on top and I’ve won everything there was to win.”
The first morning she woke up after retiring, did she do anything different? “Yeah, I went to the fridge and ate what I wanted.” She laughs. “I had cake, pizza, everything that I wasn’t allowed to eat. It was great.” She took a couple of weeks off training, then went back to it, although she went easier on herself. “When you get days it’s raining outside, it’s like: ‘Yes, I can just press the snooze button.’ Every now and again, I do find myself pushing myself to the limit [in training] and then I’m like: ‘Hang on a minute, I don’t need to do that any more.’”
Adams says she knew at the age of 12 that she would win an Olympic gold medal. “Once I saw Muhammad Ali boxing in the Olympics, I was like: ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do, I’m going to be an Olympic champion,’” she says. Women were not even allowed to box professionally then – it was not until 1998 that the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC) reluctantly gave a woman a licence to fight, after a case brought by the five-time world champion Jane Couch. The BBBC had argued that premenstrual syndrome made women too unstable. “I can’t even imagine what people must have thought, but I was so determined,” says Adams. “I just knew that that was my path.”
Adams was a fighter from the start. She was a poorly child, with allergies, asthma and eczema so bad that her mother made her wear mittens at night to stop herself scratching her skin raw. She also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In her 2017 autobiography, Adams wrote about the fights her mother and father would have; once, she stepped in front of her dad to protect her mum. She would beg her mum to leave and take Adams and her brother with her; eventually, she did (Adams has no contact with her father). “I guess when you see somebody in pain, you don’t want to see that,” says Adams. “I just wanted her to leave and be happy.” She remembers being that brave little girl, standing up to her father and “just thinking: ‘What the hell am I doing?’ But I knew it was right.”
It was around this time that Adams discovered boxing, when her mother, with no childcare, took the children to her aerobics class. She tried it and was soon hooked. “I had somewhere I could go and I could focus, and I didn’t have to think about everything that was going on in my home life.” It gave her “an outlet”, she says. “And just having someone being there, like your coach – because you spend so much time with them, they’re like a father figure. Everything sort of fell into place.”
She says she was not treated differently, despite being the only girl. “I was lucky that I got the coach I did. I remember the first day I went into the gym, he said: ‘I have one rule: you’re all boxers and everybody listens to me.’ And that was it.” It had not registered with her that it was a male-dominated sport. “When you’re a kid, you just want to go and have fun and do what makes you happy.”
Throughout Adams’ teens, when women’s professional boxing was still banned, it was a struggle to find enough girls to fight – five years went by between competitions. She started hearing comments from coaches at other gyms. “Like: ‘Why don’t you play tennis?’ or: ‘Women should be in the kitchen cooking.’ You’d hear comments like that all the time,” she says.
Even later, when Adams was representing England, “it was a battle”, she says. “There’d be 10 girls on the team and they’d send us away [to competitions] with two boxing kits.” Sometimes, there would be no time to dry the kit between uses, so they would have to pull on wet, sweat-soaked clothes before going in the ring. “It was ridiculous. The guys would have everything – physios, doctors, whatever they wanted.” How did it make her feel? “Oh, angry,” she says. “We just wanted to be treated fairly and equally. They always used to say: ‘Well, the more medals you win, the more funding you’ll get.’ But it was a catch-22 – how do you go away and win medals when you don’t give us the training that we need?”
Adams’ mum worked several jobs to fund her training and travel, while Adams worked for her stepfather’s painting and decorating business. “It was tough, especially when you were competing against countries like China, Russia and America, where they’re training full-time. A lot of us still had day jobs.” Extra pressure would be heaped on Adams: not only was her country counting on her, but so was the future of her sport. “I’d been told a few times by the coaches: if you don’t win, that’s it [for women’s boxing in the UK].” By the time it came to London 2012, lying awake in bed the night before the flyweight final, she was at least used to that pressure. “I was just thinking: ‘I’m fighting for all the other girls that want to be a boxer, that are boxers, that need this medal.’ I had to win. So I just went out and I went for it.”
Even now, she says, women’s sport is not taken as seriously as it should be. “Women’s football is getting a lot more coverage and being taken a lot more seriously than it was; same with the women’s boxing. It’s still got a long way to go, but it’s good that it’s actually progressing.” More TV and media coverage would help, she says: “The only time that you really get to see a lot of women’s sport is when the Olympics is on and I think we should show a lot more of it.”
She admires athletes such as the Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton – who campaigns against racism in F1 and beyond – who use their platform to call for change. Racism was not something she experienced in sport, she says, but she experienced it outside. Her mum had to explain to her once why she was being called racist names at school: “I couldn’t get my head around it. It was very confusing.” The Black Lives Matter movement, she says, is “a step in the right direction. I think silence shouldn’t be tolerated now. You can’t just be silent; you’ve got to be anti-racist. I don’t want to be sat here in 70 years talking about the exact same thing. It’s time to change.”
In June, Adams and her partner made and shared a video highlighting the racist, sexist and homophobic abuse they get on social media. “I’m quite strong-minded, so I can just bat it away,” she says. “But I thought: there are people out there that aren’t as strong mentally as I am, and they get those kinds of comments and it really affects them. So I wanted to show them that I get those comments, too – keep on fighting.”
Adams came out to her mother, who was completely accepting, when she was about 14; she came out again, in a way, a few weeks ago, when she clarified on Twitter that she was a lesbian, not bisexual. “If I had my way, I wouldn’t be in any ‘box’ at all,” she says. But being referred to as bisexual in the press, she says, “was getting annoying”. She acknowledges the responsibility of her accidental role-model status as a visible LGBTQ+ athlete. “I know there will be kids who are struggling. And I’d just like them to know that it doesn’t matter about your sexuality or what colour you are, you really can achieve anything you want to if you work hard.”
As a child, it would have meant a lot to her to see someone who looked like her dancing with another woman and being celebrated on primetime TV. “It’s always nice to be able to see somebody that you can relate to,” she says, her smile making her whole face glow. Her “absolute dream”, she says, is to play “a superhero in a Marvel movie”. She almost did some stunt work for the 2018 film Black Panther, but she could not do it because of her training schedule. Does she have a superhero in mind? She laughs and says: “I want a new one.” You see? A trailblazer.