How I Went from a Bartender to an Amateur Boxer In 8 Months

An unsettling encounter on the subway set bartender Rachel Washington on a path to the Olympic trials.

rachael with arm raised after winning a boxing match
This photo was taken at Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York after my first fight. I truly believe it captures the happiest moment of my life. Eleven fights later, I competed in the Olympic trials in December.

A few years ago, I decided to start boxing after a scary confrontation on the subway. It was 3 a.m. and I was riding the train home from the bar where I worked. This man sitting across from me said I "looked nice." I responded “thank you,” and just sat there. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my headphones. (Like a lot of women who live in NYC, I usually wear my headphones — whether they're on or not — to ward off unwanted, unwarranted attention.) He decided to try to engage in more conversation. I responded in short phrases, making it clear I didn't want to keep talking. But then he stood up, came over, and was hovering over me. I said, “Listen, you’re very close to me and making uncomfortable, please back up.” He got angry; a switch flipped and he let me have it, verbally. He called me every hurtful word you can imagine — uneducated, poor, nappy, a slut — and told me I "was lucky to have anyone even talk to me." This went on for 66 blocks. More than anything else, I remember that no one even looked my way. I knew no one was going to help me. He finally got off the train, angry that I just sat there the entire time, staring him in the eye, in complete silence.

After that, I cried for a month. I didn’t realize how much the harassment stuck with me; it left me feeling sad, worthless, weak, and upset that I allowed someone I didn't even know to degrade me in that way. I needed to do something to make me feel like myself again. I needed to learn how to defend myself.

Finding My Way Into the Ring

About five months later, in August 2017, I got an unlimited membership to EverybodyFights (EBF) studio, a boxing gym in midtown Manhattan, at the recommendation of one of my bar regulars. I had never boxed before, but I've always been athletic; it seemed like a good fit because I didn't know anything about the sport and I wanted something that would challenge me. I loved it immediately.

After three months of taking group classes multiple days a week, the head boxing coach Hernan Santa saw that I was disciplined and a quick learner, and asked if I was interested in actually fighting in an amateur bout. I'd have to actually step into a boxing ring with another person, and fight them. It sounded scary, but it also sounded like a fun challenge. I thought, "Why not?" (

rachael smiling with boxing bag outside

Getting In Fighting Shape

In amateur fighting, you're only in the ring for short intervals and get quick recovery times, so my training had to reflect that. Instead of showing up to class and boxing with a heavy bag for fun, I started training seriously, with a mix of sparring (fighting other people), conditioning (running up to 3 miles for speed a few times a week), strength-building (sled pushes, plyometrics, push-ups, and pull-ups), recovery (yoga twice a week and occasional sports massages), and learning and drilling technique. At times I was training every day, sometimes twice a day if you count the sparring, extra runs, and yoga sessions.

I was lucky to have a coach (Santa) who was able to train me every day as well. He follows a plant-based diet and recommended I do the same. I went completely plant-based (eating no animal products at all) and I lost the little bit of weight I needed to get into the 165lb weight class. I had more energy, slept better, and performed better, so I stuck with it. (

In the ring, you’ve got to feel your way through a fight. By instinct, you throw a punch that you’ve worked on a million times but don’t even think about it.

In amateur boxing (aka Olympic-style boxing), you typically do three 3-minute rounds in the ring which are scored on a 10-point scoring system. This style favors clean (a punch lands without being blocked), high-volume punches because the rounds are so short you don't have much time to get a KO (knock out). After each round, up to five judges will score your performance up to 10 (10 being the best). At the end of three rounds, a referee will announce the winner.

About 5 months after I started training seriously, I had my first fight. It was the most nervous I've ever been in my whole entire life, and as a result, I don't actually remember any part of it; I just have a vague memory of standing there waiting for the results, my body numb. When they raised my hand (signifying that I won) I almost fell over. All that hard work, all the nerves, blood, sweat, and tears, paid off.

The next day, I woke up to a text from Santa, “You wanna fight today?” There was an amateur boxing competition happening that day called The Ringmasters Tournament (formerly known as the Golden Gloves). I immediately said yes. Surprisingly, I didn't have any reservations about jumping back into the ring. I was on a high from winning the day before. And this time, I wasn't nervous; actually, I was so calm when I got to the fight that I actually took a nap when I got there.

I ended up winning that fight as well and went on to win the whole tournament. It was surreal. At that moment, I realized that I was boxing because I truly wanted to. Though I had originally started boxing to feel empowered in the face of fear, now that I had seen what I was capable of, any fear went out the door.

Honestly, I never had any expectations for boxing. I knew I was athletic, had potential, and loved it. I knew I had my coach, my boyfriend, my friends, my family all supporting me as I continued to work hard. The doors kept opening, so I kept fighting.

The Shuffle Is Real

Although bartending allowed me flexible hours for training, the late nights and hours on my feet were becoming brutal. It was especially tough to wake up for early training and difficult to recover from injuries. However, it was lucrative enough and flexible enough to allow me to pay for my coach, travel expenses, and rent, so I stuck with it.

When I realized I had a natural talent for boxing and it was the year to try out for the Olympics, I thought it would be foolish to not see how far it could take me.

It wasn't until October 2019, when I placed second in the Eastern Elite Qualifier — a Team USA boxing tournament in Columbus, Ohio, earning me a spot at the Olympic Trials — that I decided to leave the bar. My training was the most intense it had ever been, and in combination with the long hours and the late nights, it was taking a toll on my body. Plus, I wanted to go into the Olympic Trials in top shape. I still feel so lucky I was able to quit my job and be resourceful enough to focus solely on training at that time.

The Olympic Trials

I had physical and mental setbacks leading up to the Olympic trials in December 2019. Some employees at the bar were upset I left work to fight. I had been training nonstop since January and some injuries (a jammed thumb, a sprained wrist, a minor tear in my elbow, and minor concussion — just to name a few) were catching up with me.

It was difficult at times, but my coach and I have a great relationship, so our communication is what made it work. Some days I had to take off, and I would get upset because I wanted to train, but I needed the rest. My coach always knew when I needed the rest.

rachael in position wearing red boxing gear

While I was excited about going to the trials — and it felt surreal that I was even going — I also cried a lot because apparently that’s something I do when I’m incredibly nervous. It was a tough week, and I didn’t do as well as I knew I could. The process of competing to be on the Olympic Team is complicated, but if you win the Olympic Trials, it's almost guaranteed that you'll be on the Olympic Team.The process of the Trials is double elimination, meaning, if you lose twice, you're out. There were eight women in my weight class, and my first fight was against the no. 1 ranked female in the country in my weight class. I held my own and gave her a decent fight, but she was better; I lost. The second fight I lost by a split decision. I did well, but not well enough to win in the eyes of the judges. After those two losses, I was done.

I thought a lot about what happened, and I know my mind got the best of me. I had only had my first fight in March and I competed in the trials in December. While it was an accomplishment, I let the thought of being “new” get the best of me. My coach did an amazing job keeping me as calm and focused as I could possibly be. I fought the no. 1 boxer in the country and although I didn’t win, I held my own and proved I belong with the best of the best and I can only get better. (

Rolling with the Punches

Boxing is the hardest thing I've ever done. It has changed me, undoubtedly, for the better. I now work for EBF as a trainer and behind the scenes for our Fight School which offers online classes and tutorials taught from the world’s best boxers. I'm still training with my coach and staying "fight ready" with the hopes of returning to the ring soon and eventually back to the Olympic Trials with a better outcome.

Now, I get to teach and watch boxing all day every day — and I'm so thankful to do so. Even better, I gained a whole other family that I didn’t know I needed in my coach and in my community. What I've achieved and continue to achieve is not just for me. It’s for every woman who has had someone else try to define them. Since starting boxing, I'm more confident that (if I needed to), I could hold my own and defend myself in a fight. I, in no way, would ever fight someone unless it was life or death — but it's reassuring just to know that I have the skills to defend myself or someone else.

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