London: When Natasha Jonas took up boxing to lose weight seven years ago, she had no idea she was about to dramatically change her life and enter the history books as one of the first female Olympic boxers.

Within a month of pulling on gloves, Jonas had her first bout in the ring and it became clear she had talent.

Jonas, 28, is now ranked third in the world and will be one of 36 women competing in London when women's boxing makes its Olympic debut, knocking out the Games' last all-male sport. She was the first British female boxer to qualify for the Olympics.

"I was always a bit of tomboy growing up so no one was that surprised when I liked boxing, but they have been shocked at how seriously I have taken it and the level I have reached," Jonas told Reuters in a telephone interview between training sessions.

"A month after trying out boxing I was in a bout and I have been there ever since. I found where I belong. I just love the atmosphere of the gym."

Jonas, who was born and raised in Liverpool in northern England, said she was always sporty as a child as she came from a family where exercise was part of daily life. Her mother dances and runs while her father has always been into the gym.

"Sport was the one thing at school that I was good at. I just loved it. I was captain of most teams," said Jonas, known as Tasha to her friends, who is currently on a sabbatical from her job as a youth worker with Liverpool City Council.

She originally intended to be a soccer player and even went to the United States for 18 months on a scholarship but she was sidelined by a ligament injury and returned to the UK to take a media studies course at university.

Back In Shape

It was in 2005 as she started to put on weight that a friend suggested she join a women's boxing lesson in Liverpool to get back into the shape and that took her in a new direction.

Jonas won the ABAE (Amateur Boxing Association of England) Championship four times in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, took home gold medals from the EU Championships in 2009 and 2011, and won the GB Championship in 2010.

Olympic glory was never her aim, nor financial reward as women's boxing remains an amateur sport with little money attached. But she said she had found her calling and during her work with youngsters has adopted the slogan "respect your talent" to urge them to find what they are good at.

It was only in 2009 that the International Olympic Committee announced women's boxing would be included at London.

Women's boxing was a demonstration sport at the 1904 Games but was banned in most nations for most of the 20th century.

The British Amateur Boxing Association said a major breakthrough came in 1996 when the Amateur Boxing Association of England lifted the ban on women boxing.

New rules for women's boxing were formed for the first European Cup for Women in 1999 and the first World Championship 2001 and the sport's popularity has increased hugely. The Women's World and European Championships held biannually involve 130 nations registering female competitors.

Jonas is training three times a day in preparation for the Olympics where she will be competing as a lightweight alongside two other British women boxers, flyweight Nicola Adams and middleweight Savannah Marshall.

Where's The Chocolate?

There are only three weight classes for women boxers compared to 10 classes for the 250 male competitors.

Jonas said some things never change and she is back on a diet again, having to shed a few kilos as lightweights can only weigh up to 60 kilogrammes (132 lbs). Flyweights can weigh up to 51kg (112 lbs) and middleweights up to 75kg (165 lbs).

"You just have to get used to the sacrifices you need to make. I am having no chocolate, less carbs, and smaller meals," said Jonas, who was also picked to appear this summer in a documentary called "Glory Road" about aspiring Olympic boxers.

What will she reach for when the Olympics are over?

"Some form of chocolate," she laughed.

Jonas said she was proud to be among the first group of women boxers at the Olympics, bringing equality to the ring, and hoped she would be a role model for other women to get involved in sport.

"But I don't feel that I need to prove a point in any way because of this. As a competitor I want to do well. I am totally focused on what I want to achieve," she said.

As to those who campaigned against women's boxing being included at the Olympics, Jonas has a clear message.

"Sport changes. I used to watch the Olympics as a kid and I knew I wanted to be there. This is a children dream come true for me," she said.

"Anyone can get hurt in boxing and it is ridiculous to say that women can get hurt more than men. No one enters the ring thinking they are going to come out with brain damage. You know the risks but you just don't dwell on them."


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