Dartmouth boxing gym refuses to get KO'd by pandemic

·4 min read

At her Dartmouth, N.S., boxing club, coach Bridget Stevens shares the lessons she grew up with on the Eskasoni First Nation.

It's more important to her that fighters learn how to be good people and support each other than it is for them to win every match.

"What I'm doing here is what our community members do to help one another," said Stevens, who owns Tribal Boxing Club on Windmill Road.

It's why even in the middle of a pandemic, she's offering free classes for youth who can't afford to pay. She wants boxing to be a refuge for those who need it, like it has been for her.

Tribal Boxing used to see about 100 people walk through the doors every day, Stevens said. Public health restrictions have cut those numbers in half and cancelled boxing matches that used to help raise money for the gym and equipment.

Emma Smith/CBC
Emma Smith/CBC

"It's a struggle. It's hard," Stevens said. "But how my heart goes as being Mi'kmaw, it's [the] hard times when you get to know people, it's not the good times. So I want to continue to do this process for these kids."

She said now more than ever she wants to provide a safe place that's accessible to everyone.

Stevens started boxing about two decades ago, but her dream of becoming a world champion ended suddenly when she suffered a serious jaw injury in the ring.

Now, her dream is to help the next generation of boxers.

"I have this team of kids that I've been looking after for the last five years, and I can't let them go," she said.

Sharing Mi'kmaw culture, traditions

Stevens is one of the few female boxing coaches in the region and, in addition to offering beginner classes, has trained fighters who've competed in national competitions.

She incorporates Mi'kmaw traditions into her lessons and has invited members of the club from all backgrounds to take part in sweat lodges and mawiomis.

"I'm trying to teach them my culture," she said. "Every culture that's around is in this gym and my job is to teach them to love themselves."

Before a match she'll often say a prayer.

My job is to teach them to love themselves. - Bridget Stevens, Tribal Boxing Club

"Sometimes people feel uncomfortable, like praying for them — that's not their culture," she said. "But everybody here will allow me because I always tell them I'm not pushing my culture onto you. It's just that this is what I need because I love you and ... I need to protect you."

At first, Stevens said watching other people live out her dream of being an elite boxer was difficult. Now, she feels like a nervous mom every time one of her students steps in the ring.

Amy Smith/CBC
Amy Smith/CBC

"To see them grow up and seeing them become men and women is a really good, good, good feeling," she said.

Natteal Battiste has been training with Stevens since 2014, even before the community club opened on Windmill Road.

"It's really inspiring, but it's empowering, as well, that there's no limits for me because there's no limits for her," said Battiste, a Mi'kmaw and Black woman who is a councillor with the Acadia First Nation.

She'll often bring along her daughter, who is almost two years old, and said the club has become like a family.

Emma Smith/CBC
Emma Smith/CBC

"I can go to a sweat lodge and be with my teammates ... those are really powerful moments that really push you mentally," she said.

Battiste took up boxing when she was 14 and living on a reserve during a very difficult time for the community.

"We were experiencing an abundance of suicide," she said. "I could have resorted to something else to get that anger and frustration out, but instead I took it out on a boxing bag and, for me, it saved the direction that I was going to go at."

It's the same way Stevens feels about boxing — it saved her.

Emma Smith/CBC
Emma Smith/CBC

"I just was so eager to learn how to fight. I was eager to learn how to just really protect myself," she said. "I always feel like if I didn't have this, I would be dead."

Stevens is at her gym six to seven hours every day of the week, and says if she needs to work even harder to make sure the business survives the pandemic, she will.

"I'm not worried because I'm going to figure things out if I have to be awake 24 hours, seven days a week," she said.