Meet the champion boxer who's helping women who've experienced violence help themselves

Former Canadian amateur boxing champion Melinda Watpool is used to throwing punches in the ring, but now she's taken on the daunting task of teaching other women to do the punching — not to hurt others but to help themselves.

Melinda Watpool has joined Shape Your Life, a boxing program in Toronto's west end

Shape Your Life head coach Melinda Watpool, 28, had never coached women who have experienced violence before she started in May. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Former Canadian amateur boxing champion Melinda Watpool is used to throwing punches in the ring, but now she's taken on the daunting task of teaching other women to do the punching — not to hurt others but to help themselves.

The Mississauga, Ont., resident is now the head coach of a first-of-its-kind boxing program for women who have experienced violence.

"I didn't realize how much I'd enjoy and look forward to it every Sunday, to come and see them," said the 28-year-old, who'd been coaching the sport for five years before taking the new position.

"They really do express their appreciation, especially afterwards when they're feeling good. It really makes me feel important."

Not your typical self-defence class

Shape Your Life, a free, non-contact boxing program is offered to 24 women, typically ranging between 20 and 60 years old, over 14 weeks at Bloor Street Boxing and Fitness in Toronto's Roncesvalles area.

Many are from different cultural communities throughout the city, and all have experienced continuous abuse or trauma, according to Watpool. 

But this isn't your typical self-defence class. 

Melinda Watpool, left, working with a Shape Your Life participant. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Shape Your Life's boxing coaches all participate in ongoing trauma-informed training, and a designated social worker is at the gym when the class is running, co-founder Cathy van Ingen told CBC Toronto. 

The boxing program teaches participants how to safely hit heavy bags, speed bags and hand pads, but never each other. 

"We don't want them to have any fear toward their classmates or instructors," Watpool explained. 

"The last thing we want to do is make them feel like they're under attack because for some of them that's maybe part of the reason that they're here." 

A sense of belonging, community

A woman in her 20s, whose identity CBC Toronto has agreed to conceal because she is currently experiencing domestic violence, goes by the boxing name Paws.

She participated in Shape Your Life last August and says, although she was apprehensive the first time she put on her gloves, the gym has transformed into a safe space for her.

I like the sense of routine that I have built into my life with the program.- Paws, Shape Your Life participant

"I thought I would be terrible, and would make a fool of myself," Paws said. "But there has been a lot of positive reinforcement for me from the coaches." 

Out of the 1,300 women who have graduated from Shape Your Life, Paws claims she is the one who is "always there, 99 per cent of the time."

Cathy van Ingen co-founded Shape Your Life a decade ago. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"I like the sense of routine that I have built into my life with the program," she explained, saying it has helped her reclaim her independence and her confidence.

"It's pretty awesome to walk into a space and up front tell people that I'm a boxer," she said

"When I'm on my own or even when I'm in a group of people I feel really safe and know I can get myself out of trouble if need be."

Shape Your Life received $420K

Shape Your Life started a decade ago and van Ingen, a kinesiology professor at Brock University, says it has grown immensely.

In January, she started to study the outcomes of the program with new funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Shape Your Life received $420,000 over three years, allowing the program to move into a new space in the city's west end, expand from 10 weeks to 14 weeks. 

Melinda Watpool says she has to take a different approach when coaching women who've been traumatized by violence. 'You're kind of inviting them to do the activities, to go through the motions, but you're still teaching them the technique of boxing.' (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"This is the first time we get to measure the actual kinds of health outcomes that we're seeing and hearing about through these women's stories," van Ingen said. 

"We're actually measuring the way this program is making women more resilient, increasing their social supports, increasing their mental health, increasing their physical health." 

Trauma-informed training explains mental side

But to empower women who have experienced violence and make them feel safe in the gym, van Ingen explains, their coaches participate in ongoing trauma-informed training. 

"Coaches are not asked to be social workers, but they're asked to bring an understanding of what the women bring with them into the gym," she said. 

The main difference is you're not quite as direct when you're telling them to keep their hands up. You're kind of inviting them to do the activities.- Melinda Watpool

Watpool, who won four consecutive Senior Elite Championship titles in the women's under 81-kilogram division, has had to reframe her approach to the sport. 

"The main difference is you're not quite as direct when you're telling them to keep their hands up. You're kind of inviting them to do the activities, to go through the motions, but you're still teaching them the technique of boxing," she said. 

"Instead of pushing them through it, I invite them to stop if they need to," she said. "Or we can restructure what they're doing to maybe make it, not just easier, but something they can feel like they're actually being able to do."

Melinda Watpool says Shape Your Life's trauma-informed training helped equip her to better deal with situations in the gym. (Greg Ross/CBC)

Watpool says the trauma-informed training is crucial for her understanding of what these women are dealing with.

"You kind of understood the mental aspect of it and how kids, if they're abused at a young age, it can come out years later," she noted. 

One time, Watpool says, she was teaching a woman to wrap her hands a different way when she became upset. 

"Sometimes you just need to understand where they're coming from and leave them be to think about how they're going to wrap their hands instead of pushing them and trying to calm them down with words," she said.

According to van Ingen, Watpool is "the whole boxing package" and makes women feel strong in their bodies.

"She has to work with them and find ways to connect with them and get them to befriend these sensations in their bodies that are scary before and figure out how they are in charge of their body."