The Grand Champ of Women's Boxing: A Massachusetts fighter opens the door to first-ever women's Olympic boxing

Noelle Swan
Spare Change News

NORTH ADAMS, MASS. — In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court’s first woman justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, was still a newbie. Astronaut Sally Ride had just become the first woman in space. And Gail “The Champ” Grandchamp wanted into the Olympic boxing ring.

She wanted it with all the ferocious energy that coursed through her fists.

That year Grandchamp (yes, her real name) took on the all-male boxing establishment and delivered the legal KO that opened the door to this summer’s first-ever women’s Olympic boxing competition.

This August, two of the three women on the American boxing earned medals. Flyweight Marlen Esparza brought home the bronze, and middleweight Claressa Shields won the gold. Neither of them would have made it to the London games if it weren’t for the little-known welterweight from North Adams, Mass., whose tenacity in the ring was matched by her determination to wage an eight-year gender-discrimination battle for her sport.

“If I could meet Gail right now, I’d probably give her a hug, because she did a lot for women’s boxing,” said 17-year-old Shields in an interview after returning home to Flint, Mich. from the games. “I wouldn’t know how to go to court for women’s boxing. I just want to box.”

At the time, Grandchamp says that no one expected her to succeed in court. Five attorneys dropped her case, sure that she would never win, but she persevered—even after she knew she could never benefit from the outcome herself.

“They thought I would just go away, but I am a strong African American woman and I intended to fight for my rights,” roars Grandchamp from behind a tiny desk tucked by the window of her personal training studio in a rundown strip of storefronts in this western Massachusetts town.

Not only was Grandchamp deprived of her chance to go for the gold, she never even got credit for her historic battle to open the door to other female amateur boxers.

But in the style of a true champion, she refused to wallow in defeat. Instead, she drew on her childhood experiences with gangs and crime to become an inspiration to troubled youth in her community.

Today Grandchamp is gaining recognition by her community for her work in the two arenas of her life.

“She is such a force for girls to look up to,” said Gianna Allentuck, who invited Grandchamp to mentor young at-risk youth in her Springfield, Mass., boxing program, The Officials Club. Allentuck adds she inspires boys as well.

As a teen Grandchamp fell in with a gang, carried a switchblade, and committed thefts. She had many run-ins with the police and accumulated a lengthy juvenile record. While she was serving probation for stealing bicycles, clerks at a downtown department store caught her stealing a clock.

“My probation officer told my mother to pack my bags,” she recalls.

Expecting to be sent away to a juvenile detention center, she begged the judge for one last chance. The judge granted her wish, and Grandchamp changed her ways. She started paying attention in school and reading the Bible. She started playing softball and weightlifting. She says that it was through organized sports that she learned about self-discipline and how to be accountable for her actions.

“This lady was on her way to juvenile detention and got one more chance,” says Allentuck. “Our kids can relate to that. And she is tough and strong and resilient. She teaches them to be a good person, to have dignity, to have integrity, and definitely, never give up.”

People who know Grandchamp’s story are moved by her selfless determination.

“You can only talk about her heart, because it’s just huge,” said Allentuck. “She did this for other women. She’s the reason that these young boxing women are in the Olympics today.”

Last spring the Massachusetts legislature recognized Grandchamp for her “dedication, devotion, and achievements in leading the fight for women and women’s boxing,” as part of a celebration of women’s history in sports.

“I think that her commitment to following her passion has shown countless women that just being told that you can’t do something because of who you are isn’t an acceptable answer,” said state Senator Benjamin Downing of Pittsfield. “She has absolutely been a role model and a pioneer for women, not just in boxing, but in all sports.”

“Gail Grandchamp’s positive force and passion in promoting gender equality in sports is still being felt, especially as women’s boxing makes its Olympic debut,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who grew up in North Adams. Coakley hosted Grandchamp during a visit to the Massachusetts State House in Boston. “Gail is an outstanding role model for young women, and her determination encourages women to stand up and be strong both in and out of the ring.”

Grandchamp is still waiting to get this kind of recognition from the boxing world.

The woman who generally gets the credit as the women’s boxing trailblazer is Dallas Malloy, a blonde light welterweight from Bellingham, Wash., who, armed with attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and Grandchamp’s crucial precedent, challenged USA Boxing’s bylaws in federal court. The judge approved an injunction within moments of hearing the case, and in 1993, at age 16, Malloy became the first woman to fight in a USA Boxing sanctioned event.

Grandchamp says that Malloy, who retired from amateur boxing after just nine months, has yet to publicly acknowledge that Grandchamp laid the groundwork for her historic fight.

“I fought for eight years for this. Nobody else fought that battle. Not Dallas Malloy. Not Laila Ali [daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali and now a famous fighter herself]. Not even a lawyer!”

Grandchamp described her historic journey in an interview at Grandchamp Fitness and Boxing, a personal training facility in North Adams that Grandchamp founded. The battle began in 1984, when her coach tried to register the 29-year-old with the New England Amateur Boxing Federation, a regional arm of the governing body now known as USA Boxing. The coach received a phone call from a puzzled federation official asking if Gail Grandchamp was a girl. Yes, he said, and one of his best boxers. The official replied that no female could register as an amateur boxer.

“He told him, ‘Don’t even bring her down here. There’s no such thing as amateur boxing for women,’ ” Gail recalls.

Devastated, Grandchamp vowed to knock some heads together, figuratively, and change their minds.

In January 1985, she filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission on Discrimination against both the regional and national federations. Feeling that the commission was not taking her complaint seriously, Grandchamp hired an attorney and filed a lawsuit against the New England Amateur Boxing Federation.

By the time she had her day in court, five attorneys had come and gone, including a lawyer from the National Organization for Women who resigned after deciding the case was unwinnable.

Grandchamp watched the birthdays go by as her lawsuit lumbered through the courts, until the hard realization dawned that the battle was not for her, it was for younger women who would follow. As the age limit for amateur boxing—36—slipped by, she gave up her personal dream of amateur boxing and reaching the Olympics. She registered as a professional boxer; but she continued to fight in court.

“I was doing it for all the other women boxers out there,” she writes in her self-published autobiography, Gail Grandchamp: A Fighter with Heart Pursues Olympic Dream. “My Olympic dream became an Olympic dream for all the aspiring women amateur boxers out there.”

Without any formal legal training, Grandchamp decided to represent herself and carry the case forward on her own.

“I had to be the whole football team,” she says, nearly vibrating in her chair. “I drove the ball. I stumbled, I fumbled, but then TOUCHDOWN!”

On April 26, 1992, the Berkshire County Superior Court ruled that the New England Amateur Boxing Federation’s ban on women’s boxing was discriminatory and illegal.

“That day I felt like justice is still here,” Grandchamp exclaimed, springing out of her chair and bouncing around her studio clapping her hands as she relived the victory. “Justice can still come in Massachusetts. It was just incredible that justice prevailed, even though I wasn’t an attorney!”

In the years that followed, Grandchamp refocused her energy on her community in North Adams, a small town in the northwest corner of Massachusetts where roughly one fifth of the population lives below the poverty line. She established the Fighter with Heart Foundation to help members of her community facing financial hardships. She markets a variety of products with her name and logo on eBay to fund the foundation and offer loans and grants to her neighbors needing help paying their utility bills, veterinary bills, and just making ends meet.

Twenty years after her victory, Grandchamp boarded a plane for Spokane, Wash., to witness the first-ever women’s Olympic boxing trials. That trip triggered mixed emotions.

“I was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to meet the girls,” Grandchamp recalled. “I cried because it’s like giving birth to something.”

On the other hand, those women were realizing the dream that she was denied. Everything she had ever worked for had finally come true, but she was relegated to the sidelines.

“That was hard,” she says quietly. “That was my dream.”

Even more shocking was the realization that the 24 women competing for slots on the first-ever U.S. boxing team had no idea who she was or how hard she had fought for them to be there.

“Most of them don’t even know that there was a time that women couldn’t box as amateurs at all,” Grandchamp said sadly.

Twenty-eight-year-old Olympic hopeful Tiffany Hearn of San Diego had participated in recent petition drives to bring women’s boxing to the Olympic games, but had no idea who had started that fight, or that it had begun when she was just an infant.

“I hate to admit that,” she said. Hearn explained that after meeting Grandchamp at the Olympic trails in Spokane, she and the other girls started asking the older coaches about her and started to piece together her story.

Another Olympic contender, Traversha Norwood of Atlanta, said that although she had talked with Grandchamp, she did not learn about Grandchamp’s role in the history of women’s amateur boxing until after the trials.

“I sat down with her and my coach. It wasn’t about her. She was making it all about me, seeing how she could help me and how to promote myself,” Norwood says. “I didn’t realize the importance of the moment until afterwards.”

Shields laments the fact that many of her peers are unaware of what Grandchamp did for women’s boxing. “That’s like not knowing the name Ali,” referring to former heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali. “You can’t live in the past, but you have to know where you came from.”

The world watched on as three American women competed for Olympic gold, but few knew that the arduous journey to the Olympic arena began before those women were born.

Grandchamp watched the historic bouts on television at home, cheering on the sidelines once again.

NOELLE SWAN is a Spare Change News writer and editor.



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