Priyanka Dhillon will soon be Manitoba’s first female boxer to compete at a world championship.
It’s quite the accomplishment for anyone, let alone someone who kept their boxing career a secret at first.
"So, when I first started boxing, I didn’t tell my parents for a very long time. I knew they wouldn’t like the fact that I was in the ring fighting. They knew I was going to the gym, working out, and going boxing, but I don’t think I told them until five or so fights," Dhillon recently told the Free Press.
"It was this quick ‘Hey by the way, I fight, and I won all five fights. OK bye!’" My mom was like ‘You’re going to get hurt!’ And I was like ‘Well, considering how I had five fights and I’ve won them all, I think I’m OK.’"
Dhillon, who got her start in the sport in 2013 at Pan Am Boxing Club, is doing more than OK and now has the full support of her parents — mom Hardip and dad Sukhbir. The 29-year-old from Winnipeg is the nation’s top fighter at 48kg and is currently in Germany training with her Team Canada teammates for the International Boxing Association Women’s World Boxing Championships in Istanbul, Turkey (May 8-20). The fact that she’s making history in the process makes competing at this level even sweeter.
“So, when I first started boxing, I didn’t tell my parents for a very long time. I knew they wouldn’t like the fact that I was in the ring fighting." — Priyanka Dhillon
"I had a coach from another gym say he’s super proud of me and that I don’t even realize the path that I’m creating and how I’m opening doors for other females in the sport," Dhillon said. " I had to kind of think about that for a bit. It’s actually pretty cool as I didn’t realize that."
Dhillon’s first love was track and field, but a case of severe shin splints led to her having surgery on both of her legs shortly after graduating from Sisler High School. That’s when one of her friends suggested they go try boxing to stay in shape. The friend quickly dropped out, but Dhillon stuck with it and now she’s an important member of the local boxing community as she’s Boxing Manitoba’s female athlete rep.
"When I first started, and even now actually, there just really isn’t a lot of female representation in Manitoba for boxing," Dhillon said. "I’m hoping I can encourage other athletes — young, old, doesn’t matter — to get involved in the sport. Even across Canada, Ontario and Quebec have a bit more females, but across Canada, it’s very limited, so if I can be that person, that’d be awesome."
"I’m hoping I can encourage other athletes ‐ young, old, doesn’t matter ‐ to get involved in the sport." — Priyanka Dhillon
She’d especially love to see more competition in her weight class. Dhillon’s forced to travel to get fights as there are approximately five competitive fighters at 48kg in Canada and she’s the only one in Manitoba. It has also led to Dhillon getting in the ring with the weight class above hers at times. Right before the pandemic, Dhillon competed at the Canadian Olympic qualifiers in Montreal at 51kg and finished in third place out of 10 fighters. To qualify for worlds, Dhillon won a bronze medal at her first international event in March — the Continental Championships in Ecuador.
"That was my first international tournament, so that was nerve-wracking as is, especially since I haven’t fought in two and a half years because of COVID… But now going to worlds, this is the biggest thing I’ve done in boxing," said Dhillon.
"I’m definitely nervous, which I think is normal, but I’m really excited as I’ve never been in this position. I just hope I have a good performance and a good draw would be nice as well."
Dhillon battled it out with eight boxers in Ecuador, but the tournament in Turkey features 30-plus punchers at her size. It’s by far her toughest test, but long-time local boxing coach Mark Collins likes how she’s been preparing. Collins, who started training Dhillon two and a half years ago, has been coaching boxing for 35 years and Dhillon is the 37th person he’s helped get onto the national team. Collins has also been guiding Dhillon’s boyfriend Dylan Martin, another national team member out of Pan Am. Martin is gearing up for an international event in the Netherlands.
"You know, being a national champion is one thing, but being successful in international boxing is another thing altogether. It’s almost a different style," said Collins. "So, I started helping them develop and then COVID hit, but that was a blessing in disguise for us because both her and Dylan are a coach’s dream. They just want to learn and they’re very committed… So, during COVID, we trained everywhere. We trained in fields, in garages, underneath bridges, wherever we could train, we trained."
Dhillon, who also works as a trainer at Metabolik Fitness, hopes this is just the beginning for her and that she can represent the red and white for many years to come.
"A couple years back, I told myself it’d be cool to do one international tournament. But doing that and experiencing that and qualifying for worlds, it’s like ‘You know what, I can do this.’ I want to keep doing it and see how far I can get," Dhillon said.
"It’d be pretty cool if I could qualify for the Olympics. I know that’s a pretty big goal to set, especially since my weight class isn’t in the Olympics, but it keeps me motivated setting these goals."
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