I first met Stacey Copeland when she spoke at Manchester University’s XXI Club’s annual awards dinner. Her passion for equality within sport was inspiring and her catalogue of achievements within both football and boxing was highly impressive.
Stacey started her sporting career by playing football for England U18s and moved on to play in the premier league for Doncaster Belles and Tranmere Rovers. Later she gained a scholarship in the USA where she played for St Edwards University in Austin. Her football career ended after her final season playing for Vasalunds in Stockholm, Sweeden.
As her football career came to an end, her amateur boxing career began. It was soon apparent that she was going to have just as much success. She became a European silver medallist, 3x National ABA champion, and a multi-nations gold medallist and boxer of the tournament.
After an impressive stretch of achievements in amateur boxing, Stacey went on to become a professional boxer and was the first woman to win the Commonwealth boxing title.
In 2017 she founded the ‘Pave The Way’ project which challenges gender stereotypes within sport which she has recently submitted to the charity commission for charity status.
I was delighted when Stacey agreed to feature on my blog, and I couldn’t wait to share her story with you all. It is truly extraordinary!
So Stacey, I know you’ve had an amazing career in both boxing and football but what have been your greatest achievements?
My first greatest achievement is when in America they named an award after me – ‘The Stacey Copeland Community Service Award’, which is for athletes who show a commitment to service. This was a proud moment for me as it was about using sport for good.
My second greatest achievement is that I set up a project called Pave The Way in 2017.
And finally, everything I have done in the ring but also outside of it; school visits, talks, inspiration days etc. I use sport as a platform to inspire others and make a difference which is always my best and most important achievement.
After hearing your story at Manchester University’s XXI Club meal, I was inspired by how you combated gender inequality throughout your career in sport. Could you enlighten the readers on some of the adversities you had to face and how you overcame them?
As a young girl wanting to play football, it was very difficult at the time as the FA didn’t yet officially recognise girl’s and women’s football. The first time I played for my primary school team I was asked to leave the pitch. I had my hair cut short so that I could pretend to be a boy and play. It led to people asking me why I wanted to be a boy…I never wanted to be a boy, I just wanted to play football.
In boxing I was in the gym from about 6 years old, when I reached the age of 11 (when you can usually start boxing) I was told it was illegal for females and I was gutted. It was years before I was able to compete as the ban on women’s boxing was not lifted until 1998.
There have continued to be many barriers since, including having no belt when I won the Commonwealth title. As a young woman I often didn’t speak up when things were unfair but as I’ve gotten older, I have learned the importance of using my voice to question, challenge, and try to change inequality.
What gave you the strength and tenacity to stand up for what you believe in?
Firstly, I am the beneficiary of the various challenges that so many men and women have taken on who came before me including; those who fought for the legalisation of women’s football and boxing, those in the US who fought for Title IX (which meant colleges in the US had to provide equal investment into both men’s and women’s sports); and many more.
It is now my privilege and responsibility to try to push things even further and make it better for the next generation, just as others have done for me and my generation. I was ‘given’ a lot by those gone before, so now I should expect a lot of myself, too.
Secondly, my drive to leave a positive human footprint and improve things for others far outweighs the fears, doubts, and barriers along the way. Plus, I’m surrounded by some excellent people who I can draw strength from when I need to.
I’m sure many of us can learn from your willingness to fight for what is right. What advice can you give to our readers who struggle to do the right thing when it isn’t always the easiest option?
I think we all have to feel ready to speak up and sometimes it takes a while to get there. Once we do, then it’s sometimes down to choosing courage over comfort, and being prepared to step into the arena, face whatever comes back at you, and speak up regardless.
Either way, if we have a real passion to create change then it becomes a drive within us which we can’t ignore. At first, I didn’t think it was possible to speak up and to share my story but then in time it became impossible not to. It was my drive and desire to change things for the better.
I know you began a project called ‘Pave The Way’ in 2017, could you tell us a little more about that?
‘Pave The Way’ began as a project just for women’s sport week in 2017. We did a lot of school visits, community visits, and a photography exhibition of women who worked in sport which is on permanent display at the National Cycling Centre. After that initial week the project just gained momentum and since we’ve done several exhibitions, inspiration days, and over a hundred school visits and community sessions. We have now submitted pave the way to the charity commission and are awaiting a decision on charity status.
‘Pave The Way’ is no longer focussed only on women in sport, although this will always be at the core of our purpose. Now it also engages with other industries where change is needed, such as women in law, engineering, construction, etc. And it has expanded to include boys and men too, as gender inequality affects both groups. Male ballet dancers, for example, face stigma just as we do as women in male dominated sport or careers. Our aim is to create a world where gender is no longer a barrier to human potential, and we have many ways in which we want to try and achieve this.
Finally, have you got anything exciting lined up for 2020?
I am giving a TEDx talk at the Manchester event in February at the Bridgewater Hall which I’m very excited about. I have a lot of public speaking engagements lined up already which I love doing so I’m excited about each and every one of those.
I will also be making my comeback fight after all this time injured (we are looking at April/May) then we’ll look to go for more titles.
Obviously ‘Pave The Way’ is a huge part of my life now and so my aim is to get us up and running as a charity and start building towards our goals.
I also present on a radio show on BBC Radio Manchester ‘The Dead Good Show’ so I want to keep improving as a presenter and adding value to the team there too.
And I work in a school (part time now) so I want to continue to use sport and the things I’ve learned from sport myself, to help impact young people in a positive way. I believe sport is one of the most powerful things on the planet for making a difference so whatever I do it will be to try and make things better for others wherever I can.
A truly inspiring story from a truly inspiring woman. You certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on the TEDx talk that she is delivering in Manchester on the 29th February at the Bridgewater Hall, so make sure you get yourself a ticket here.
And finally, make sure you tune into BBC Radio Manchester at 19:00 weekdays to catch ‘The Dead Good Show’, I know that I will be!
We wish Stacey the best of luck for her upcoming ventures and can’t wait to see her back in the ring, doing what she does best!
Until next time, happy Studenting!