The first time I got punched in the face, I froze.
I was in a boxing ring, sparring for the first time, and the sensation was so strange it stopped me in my tracks.
She hit me, I thought.
Then I punched back.
I never planned on becoming a boxer.
I'd started attending cardio kickboxing classes as a way to lose weight and get in shape.
What would it be like to actually hit something? I wondered as I threw a left-right-left combination into the air. But I was thinking along the lines of a heavy bag... not a person.
I found a boxing gym nearby and started taking group classes in the evening after work. Hitting the heavy bag was even more satisfying than I imagined, and after a year, my husband bought me 10 private lessons with Tony, a trainer at the gym. Tony moved me from the heavy bag to focus pads, calling out combinations and teaching me footwork.
"You should come spar with the other girls Friday night," Tony said to me after one of our sessions.
I was 29, married, no kids, working an office job I liked but didn't love. I was bored and restless, but it never occurred to me to take up a sport. I'd never been an athlete: Every time I tried a new athletic pursuit—tennis and soccer in high school, crew in college—I grew frustrated when my body wouldn't do what I wanted. I'd plant my left foot and swing my right foot to make contact with the soccer ball, and instead of flying down the field, the ball bounced and sputtered, ending up a few feet away.
Boxing was different. Learning the mechanics of throwing a solid punch was so interesting and difficult, I was motivated to keep trying until I got better. I'd seen the ring in the middle of the gym and wondered what it would be like in there, but the journey from the group class to real boxing seemed about as accessible as a trip to the moon. It was not a place for a bookish, un-athletic woman who'd never even watched a boxing match, much less participated in one.
But curiosity won out, and one Friday night, I found myself awkwardly stepping through the ropes into the ring, borrowed headgear covering my forehead and cheeks, a new mouth guard clamped between my teeth. I immediately regretted my decision when I faced the woman across the ring. I stood in the corner, thinking wistfully of my cardio kickboxing class. It all seemed like a terrible mistake, but I was already in the spaceship, hurtling through space. There was no turning back.
The bell rang, we both shuffled to the middle of the ring, and the punch hit my face.
"Hands up, jab, then move!" Tony shouted. I threw my jab, and it grazed my opponent's headgear.
And suddenly, I was a boxer.
After six months of Friday night sparring, Tony told me I should sign up for a boxing match.
There was just one thing—I needed to cut weight.
I'm almost 5'7" and weighed 156 pounds. Amateur boxing has weight classes, and Tony felt I could move down one—the ultimate goal was light welterweight, which at that time, meant being less than 139 pounds. But if I couldn't make that weight class, I'd be a welterweight, 147 pounds or less.
Tony's advice was to eat six small meals a day. I cut out bread, rice, and alcohol, and drastically reduced my fat intake. I lost about six pounds in a few months, but then my weight loss stalled. My goal was to get below 140 pounds, but I was stuck at 150.
I started exercising more. I'd wake up at 5:30 a.m. and go for a 30-minute run before work. My work was only a few minutes from our home near the ocean in San Diego, so at lunch, I'd rush home, change into workout clothes, and do a quick sprint interval workout on the boardwalk before rinsing off and returning to work. Then at night, I'd go to the boxing gym for an hour.
The obsession took over my life.
On a trip to Yosemite with friends and family, I put on my running shoes and went for a three-mile run after a full-day hike. I cut back my calories even further. My mid-morning snack became half a protein bar, the rest carefully wrapped up for later. I wanted to weigh less, so I ate less.
On the day of my first boxing match, I weighed in at 141.2. My body refused to bend to my will. No matter how little I ate or how much I exercised, I couldn't get below 140 pounds.
Luckily, it didn't matter.
I won that fight and then the next one. Then, a day before my 30th birthday, I competed in USA Boxing's Southern California regional competition. I weighed in at just above 141 pounds and won both my matches that day. To my shock, that meant I'd qualified for women's nationals, held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in early July.
I'd picked up boxing as a way to get in shape, and suddenly, I was competing on a national level. I was in over my head and completely unprepared. I couldn't get years of experience in a month, so I focused on what I could control: my diet and my training.
I traveled to Florida and faced off against an 18-year-old who'd just moved up from juniors, where she'd been a world-champion boxer and a second-degree black belt in karate. I held my own but never stood a chance. The competition was single elimination—I lost the match and I was done.
Afterward, I sobbed in the shower, disappointed and humiliated I'd traveled with my husband from San Diego to Florida to spend six minutes in the ring. I was exhausted, underfed, and over-trained.
I'd set a pace I couldn't maintain—and it was time to slow down.
Back home, I took a break from competing and began eating more and training less. I wanted to get pregnant, never thinking a year of over-exercising and extreme dieting might make that difficult. After a year of trying to get pregnant with no success, my husband and I visited a fertility specialist, who prescribed Clomid to induce ovulation. The doctor never asked about my exercise or diet, but in retrospect, I'm pretty sure I'd sent a clear message to my body that this was not a good time to have a baby.
Eventually, my hormones stabilized, my daughter was born, and I had a son three years later. During this time, I met with Tony sporadically for one-on-one sessions, but I found I didn't enjoy boxing if I couldn't spar and compete.
Then I joined a CrossFit gym that opened a half-mile from my house.
Here, I found the challenge and heart-pounding intensity of boxing (without the punches to the head or the weight classes). Like I had with boxing, I fell in love with weightlifting. I learned to deadlift, squat, and bench press, and slowly learned more complicated lifts like the snatch, and the clean and jerk. I learned how to do pull-ups and handstand push-ups. I was terrible at almost everything but intrigued by the challenge.
In a CrossFit gym, most discussions about weight center around what's on the barbell. I'd always kept a healthy diet, but I stopped worrying about fat intake and focused on eating lean protein, fruits, and vegetables, and eliminated most processed carbohydrates. I played around with a Paleo diet, cutting out dairy and bread, but didn't notice much of a difference, so I started eating yogurt and drinking milk again. I put the scale away and became a regular at the noon class at the gym.
I'd walked into the CrossFit gym weighing about 150 pounds. As the weight on the barbell increased, so did the weight on the scale, but when I looked in the mirror, I saw a flatter and more muscular stomach and new muscles in my arms and shoulders. The squats and deadlifts gave me a rounder, firmer butt, something I didn't know I wanted but appreciated.
The extra muscle made my clothes fit differently. I'd held onto a pair of pants I bought when I was at my lightest from boxing. I knew I'd never be able to wear them again, but I tried them on every now and then and thought about my three-a-day workouts, my extreme calorie restriction. When I couldn't button up those pants, I felt panic in my stomach. For most of my life, the goal was to be lighter, smaller, and thinner. I'd been conditioned to want to take up less space, to shrink.
Now I was getting bigger. What if the scale kept going up? How big was I going to get?
My weight stabilized around 160 pounds—almost 20 more than what I weighed in my boxing days. A few years ago, my husband took a photo of me in a bikini on a trip to Palm Springs, and it was only then I could see it: I looked strong, and fit, and most of all—happy.
The scale told one story; the photo told another. It showed a life of balance: an hour in the gym four days a week, regular surf sessions, and time on the weekend with my kids and husband. Most importantly, it showed an example of fitness and health not tied to the scale.
Hilary Achauer is a San Diego-based health and fitness writer. Follow her on Instagram at @hilaryachauer.