How My Boxing Career Gave Me the Strength to Fight On the Frontlines As a COVID-19 Nurse

Kim Clavel traded her boxing gloves for scrubs to care for those who were most vulnerable at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kim Clavel
Photo: Instagram/Kim Clavel

I found boxing when I needed it most. I was 15 years old when I first stepped into a ring; at the time, it felt like life had only beaten me down. Anger and frustration consumed me, but I struggled to express it. I grew up in a small town, an hour outside of Montreal, raised by a single mom. We barely had money to survive, and I had to get a job at a very young age to help make ends meet. School was the least of my priorities because I simply didn't have the time—and as I grew older, it became increasingly difficult for me to keep up. But perhaps the hardest pill to swallow was my mother's struggle with alcoholism. It killed me to know that she nursed her loneliness with the bottle. But no matter what I did, I didn't seem to help.

Getting out of the house and being active had always been a form of therapy for me. I ran cross country, rode horses, and even dabbled with taekwondo. But the idea of boxing didn't come to mind until I watched Million Dollar Baby. The movie moved something inside of me. I was fascinated by the tremendous courage and confidence it took to spar and face a competitor in the ring. After that, I started tuning into fights on TV and developed a deeper admiration for the sport. It got to the point where I knew I had to try it out for myself.

Starting My Boxing Career

I fell in love with boxing the very first time I tried it. I took a lesson at a local gym and immediately after, I went to the coach, adamantly demanding him to train me. I told him I wanted to compete and become a champion. I was 15 years old and had just sparred for the first time in my life, so it's no surprise that he didn't take me seriously. He suggested I learn more about the sport for at least a few months before deciding if boxing was for me. But I knew no matter what, I wasn't going to change my mind. (

Eight months later, I became Quebec's junior champion, and my career skyrocketed after that. At 18 years old, I became a national champion and earned a spot on Canada's national team. I represented my country as an amateur boxer for seven years, traveling all over the world. I competed in 85 fights around the world, including Brazil, Tunisia, Turkey, China, Venezuela, and even the United States. In 2012, women's boxing officially became an Olympic sport, so I focused my training on that.

But there was a catch to competing at the Olympic level: Even though there are 10 weight categories in amateur women's boxing, women's Olympic boxing is restricted to only three weight classes. And, at the time, mine wasn't one of them.

Despite the disappointment, my boxing career held steady. Still, something kept nagging at me: the fact that I had only graduated high school. I knew that even though I adored boxing with all of my heart, it wasn't going to be there forever. I could get a career-ending injury at any time, and eventually, I'd age out of the sport. I needed a backup plan. So, I decided to prioritize my education.

Becoming a Nurse

After the Olympics didn't pan out, I took a break from boxing to explore some career options. I settled on nursing school; my mom was a nurse and, as a kid, I'd often tag along with her to help take care of elderly patients with dementia and Alzheimer's. I enjoyed helping people so much that I knew being a nurse would be something I could be passionate about.

In 2013, I took a year off of boxing to focus on school and graduated with my nursing degree in 2014. Soon, I scored a six-week stint at a local hospital, working in the maternity ward. Eventually, that turned into a full-time nursing job—one that, at first, I balanced with boxing.

Being a nurse brought me so much joy, but it was challenging to juggle boxing and my job. Most of my training was in Montreal, an hour away from where I live. I had to get up super early, drive to my boxing session, train for three hours, and make it back in time for my nursing shift, which started at 4 p.m. and ended at midnight.

I kept up this routine for five years. I was still on the national team, and when I wasn't fighting there, I was training for the 2016 Olympics. My coaches and I were holding on to the hope that this time around, the Games would diversify their weight class. However, we were let down yet again. At 25 years old, I knew it was time to give up on my Olympic dream and move on. I had done everything I could in amateur boxing. So, in 2017, I signed with Eye of The Tiger Management and officially became a professional boxer.

It was only after I went pro that keeping up with my nursing job became increasingly difficult. As a pro boxer, I had to train longer and harder, but I struggled to find the time and energy I needed to keep pushing myself as an athlete.

At the end of 2018, I had a difficult conversation with my coaches, who said that if I wanted to continue my boxing career, I had to leave nursing behind. (

As much as it pained me to press pause on my nursing career, my dream had always been to be a boxing champion. At this point, I had been fighting for over a decade, and since going pro, I was undefeated. If I wanted to continue my winning streak and become the best fighter that I could, nursing had to take a backseat—at least temporarily. So, in August 2019, I decided to take a sabbatical year and focus entirely on becoming the best fighter I could.

How COVID-19 Changed Everything

Giving up nursing was hard, but I quickly realized it was the right choice; I had nothing but time to devote to boxing. I was sleeping more, eating better, and trained harder than I ever had. I reaped the fruits of my efforts when I won the North American Boxing Federation female light flyweight title in December 2019 after being undefeated for 11 fights. This was it. I had finally earned my first main event fight at the Montreal Casino, which was scheduled for March 21, 2020.

Heading into the biggest fight of my career, I wanted to leave no stone unturned. In just three months, I was going to defend my WBC-NABF title, and I knew my opponent was far more experienced. If I won, I would be recognized internationally—something I had worked toward my entire career.

To amp up my training, I hired a sparring partner from Mexico. She essentially lived with me and worked with me every day for hours an end to help me finetune my skills. As my fight date inched nearer, I felt stronger and more confident than ever.

Then, COVID happened. My fight was canceled just 10 days before the date, and I felt all of my dreams slip through my fingers. When I heard the news, tears flooded my eyes. My whole life, I had worked to get to this point, and now it was all over with the snap of a finger. Plus, given all the ambiguity surrounding COVID-19, who knew if or when I'd ever fight again.

For two days, I couldn't get out of bed. The tears wouldn't stop, and I kept feeling like everything had been taken away from me. But then, the virus really started to progress, making headlines left and right. People were dying in the thousands, and there I was wallowing in self-pity. I had never been someone to sit and do nothing, so I knew I needed to do something to help. If I couldn't fight in the ring, I was going to fight on the frontlines. (

Kim Clavel

If I couldn't fight in the ring, I was going to fight on the frontlines.

— Kim Clavel

Working On the Frontlines

The next day, I sent my resume out to local hospitals, the government, anywhere people needed help. Within a few days, my phone began ringing incessantly. I didn't know much about COVID-19, but I did know that it particularly affected older people. So, I decided to take on the role of a replacement nurse at various elderly care facilities.

I started my new job on March 21, the same day that my fight was originally scheduled to take place. It was fitting because when I stepped through those doors, it felt like a war zone. For starters, I had never worked with the elderly before; maternity care was my forte. So, it took me a couple of days to learn the ins and outs of caring for elderly patients. Plus, the protocols were a mess. We had no idea what the next day would bring, and there was no way to treat the virus. The chaos and uncertainty bred an environment of anxiety among both the healthcare staff and patients.

But if there's anything boxing had taught me, it was to adapt—which is exactly what I did. In the ring, when I looked at the stance of my opponent, I knew how to anticipate her next move. I also knew how to stay calm in a frantic situation, and fighting the virus was no different.

That said, even the strongest of people couldn't avoid the emotional toll of working on the frontlines. Every day, the number of deaths rose drastically. The first month, in particular, was horrible. By the time patients would come in, there was nothing we could do except make them comfortable. I went from holding one person's hand and waiting for them to pass before moving on and doing the same for someone else. (

Kim Clavel

If there's anything boxing had taught me, it was to adapt—which is exactly what I did.

— Kim Clavel

Plus, since I was working in an elderly care facility, nearly everyone who came in was alone. Some had spent months or even years in a nursing home; in many cases, family members had abandoned them. I often took it upon myself to make them feel less lonely. Every spare moment I had, I would go into their rooms and set the TV to their favorite channel. Sometimes I played music for them and asked them about their life, children, and family. One time an Alzheimer's patient smiled at me, and it made me realize these seemingly small acts made a big difference.

There came a point when I was serving as many as 30 coronavirus patients in a single shift, with barely any time to eat, shower, or sleep. When I did go home, I tore off my (incredibly uncomfortable) protective gear and immediately got into bed, hoping to rest. But sleep evaded me. I couldn't stop thinking about my patients. So, I trained. (

Over the 11 weeks that I worked as a COVID-19 nurse, I trained for an hour a day, five to six times a week. Since gyms were still shut down, I would run and shadow box—in part to stay in shape, but also because it was therapeutic. It was the outlet I needed to release my frustration, and without it, it would have been difficult for me to stay sane.

Looking Ahead

During the last two weeks of my nursing shift, I saw things improve significantly. My colleagues were much more comfortable with the protocols since we were more educated about the virus. On my last shift on June 1, I realized that all my sick patients had tested negative, which made me feel good about leaving. I felt like I had done my part and wasn't needed anymore.

The following day, my coaches reached out to me, letting me know that I was scheduled for a fight on July 21 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. It was time for me to get back to training. At this point, even though I was staying in shape, I hadn't trained intensively since March, so I knew I had to double down. I decided to quarantine with my coaches up in the mountains—and since we still couldn't go to an actual gym, we had to get creative. My coaches built me an outdoor training camp, complete with a punching bag, pull-up bar, weights, and a squat rack. Aside from sparring, I took the rest of my training outdoors. I got into canoeing, kayaking, running up mountains, and I would even flip boulders to work on my strength. The whole experience had serious Rocky Balboa vibes. (

Even though I wish I had had more time to devote to my training, I felt strong going into my fight at the MGM Grand. I defeated my opponent, successfully defending my WBC-NABF title. It felt amazing to be back in the ring.

But now, I'm not sure when I'll get the opportunity again. I have high hopes of having another fight at the end of 2020, but there's no way of knowing for sure. In the meantime, I will continue to train and be as prepared as I can be for whatever comes next.

As for other athletes who've had to pause their careers, who may feel like their years of hard work were for nothing, I want you to know that your disappointment is valid. But at the same time, you have to find a way to be grateful for your health, to remember that this experience will only build character, make your mind stronger, and force you to continue working on being the best. Life will go on, and we will compete again—because nothing is truly canceled, only postponed.

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