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Community shows support for boxer's Olympic quest

NOTL resident McKenzie Wright is on her way to Cali, Colombia where she hopes to earn a chance to compete in the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile in October

Before boarding a flight to Cali, Colombia Monday for a chance to qualify for the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile in October, St. Davids’ boxer McKenzie Wright received a send-off fit for a future Olympian.

About 40 family members, friends and supporters gathered on the patio at the Sandtrap Pub and Grill last Wednesday afternoon for a fundraiser to help offset the cost for Wright’s trip, to the tune of about $2,700 when it was all over.

Wright won two matches by unanimous decisions at last month’s domestic qualifier event for the Pan Am Games, beating Grace Fanbulleh of New Brunswick and BC’s Nyeousha Nakhirji to take the Light Flyweight (50 kg) division and punch her ticket to Cali. 

“Things happened really quickly,” Wright told The Local, a sister publication of ThoroldToday. “They sprung it on us in Montreal that we would be leaving for Cali in just three weeks. I had to scramble to find the funding. My Mom and Dad (Judy and Dow) put this all together. They reached out to the community and secured all these raffle prizes and the Sandtrap to host the fundraiser.”

In addition to the Sandtrap fundraiser, a GoFundMe page had raised just over $10,000 as of press time for the three-time national champion’s quest. 

Wright says she gets no funding from any government or governing body involved in the sport. 

“Other sports get funding, but boxing is very limited,” said Wright, a former kickboxer who started in that sport as a fifteen-year-old Oakville resident but switched to boxing because she was “more of a puncher than a kicker”. 

In 2010, Wright’s gold-medal effort in the 46 kg weight class made her the second Canadian to win both the national boxing and kickboxing titles in the same season.

About seven years later Wright says she had lost the fire for competition. She picked up and moved to South Africa, finding work at a Safari camp. When the pandemic hit, that job was no longer viable, so she moved back home with her parents who in the meantime had retired to St. Davids.

Then she received a call from a boxing friend going back to her days fighting out of Burlington’s Bay Area Athletic Club. 2015 Pan American Games gold medalist Mandy Bujold of Kitchener invited Wright to spar with her as she was training for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, her second Olympic Games.

“I sparred with her when she was training for the Pan Am Games in 2015,” Wright said. “She was getting her sparring ready for Tokyo, and she asked me to be part of her camp. I was thrilled, but I hadn’t been in the ring for quite awhile. I wasn’t sure if I was going to bring enough to the table for her.”

All it took was one sparring session and Wright’s desire to get back into the ring for real was once again sparked. 

“Her level of competition, just to be in the ring with her, made me want to be better,” Wright explained. “It fired me up to get my own training going. This time around, I’m loving training more than ever, and I feel I have the right team behind me.”

That team includes her trainer Jesse Sallows, who owns City Boxing Club in Niagara Falls, as well as 11-time Canadian champion Bujold, who was at the fundraiser Wednesday. 

“She has all the abilities to beat all of these girls,” Bujold insisted. “She has the speed, the footwork, she puts great combinations together. It’s all there, it’s just a matter of ensuring that she knows that and that she feels supported along the way. With the community behind her, she can focus solely on training and not all the other things.”

There’s at least one other thing that Wright has felt compelled to focus on the last couple of years. She is just wrapping up her final semester in Niagara College’s nursing program.

“I still have to write my licensing exam,” said Wright. “I’ve completed all of my consolidating (clinical) hours. But I can write that exam any time. Right now I’m going to focus on the Pan Am’s, and I’ll probably write it after that.”

Since that first sparring session with Bujold she’s thrown herself into her training. She works out twice a day, hitting the gym with Sallows in the evenings after taking advantage of the hills in St. Davids for her road training. And she’s installed a heavy bag in her parent’s backyard. 

“When she went to work with Mandy I knew she would get the urge back,” Dow told The Local. “She likes to compete. She’s been doing this a long time, we’ve been used to seeing her get kicked and punched. I always joke with her that it’s better to give than to receive.”

At the Sandtrap fundraiser Wright was meeting her supporters, posing for and signing photographs and talking about her quest to fight at the 2024 Paris Olympics. There were some familiar faces on the patio, but also many whom Wright was meeting for the first time. 

Bud Duerr, visiting a friend in NOTL from his home in Indiana, heard about the fundraiser and decided to attend. 

“I’m a boxing fan,” said Duerr. “I think it’s fantastic, the discipline she’s shown in training and every aspect of it is a sheer joy to see.” 

“It’s really overwhelming to see how our friends, our families and the community as a whole have embraced what we’ve been asking of them,” Dow said. “They’re supporting what McKenzie is doing. It’s been humbling, to be frank about it.”

Wright will participate with 13 other elite Canadian boxers at a training camp in Cali beginning this week to get ready for the competition in August. Success there will get her a spot at the Pan Am Games in Santiago October 21 to 27. 

“It’s been amazing how everyone has really pulled through,” Wright said about her supporters Wednesday. “They’ve really joined my team to help me get to these competitions.”