We are teaming up with OKREAL for our interview series, “Pay it Forward.” We spoke with women who we collectively admire to hear what mentorship means to them, the advice that has been most meaningful and the importance of uplifting the women around you. OKREAL is a platform that curates wisdom shared by a range of smart, leading women role models.

Ninth in our series is Nicola Adams, the first woman to win an Olympic boxing title. We spoke with Adams about breaking barriers, making sacrifices and how she got through the hardest time of her life.

Check back in next week for our tenth interview in this series. We’ll be speaking with illustrator Malika Favre.

Do you have a female mentor or leader you respect? Who is she?

I guess my mentor would be my mum. She’s definitely the person who has had the greatest influence on me and is the person I turn to for advice.

What qualities make a good mentor or leader?

Honesty is key for me — and you have to be willing to listen to them, even if you might not like hearing what they have to say.

Mentors come in all different forms, and are not always people who we expect. What is your experience with this?

What has surprised me is when you learn things you weren’t expecting to from someone. For example, I’m learning so much from my new team since turning professional, but not just in boxing terms. I’m learning a lot about life from Victor Conte and Virgil Hunter, they have so much life experience and knowledge, and not just in sport. It just shows that you should always be open-minded about where you might get advice from.

What is something a woman mentor or leader did for you, that you now try and do for other women?

I was very lucky that my mum showed me how strong you can be. She sacrificed so much for me and my brother. Not just working two jobs, but also making sure I could train, taking me to competitions, supporting me in every way she could. There was no funding for women’s boxing back when I started. I think she gave me the strength and determination that have helped me break down the barriers in my sport. While there is still a long way to go, there’s now a pathway future female boxers can take and hopefully they can take inspiration from my journey.

How did that experience (of what your mentor did for you) change your career/life?

One of the hardest periods for me was when I was injured. I broke my back falling down my stairs. I was stuck in bed for three months unable to do anything, I couldn’t even go out. I found this period so hard as I was worried that I might never box again, I might not fulfill my dream of competing in an Olympics. However, my mum was key to helping me get through this period. This time showed me I was much tougher mentally than I realized.

What’s one piece of advice that you struggle to put into practice (even though you know you should).

I have a pretty strict diet that my team help me set that I need to follow when I’m training. The problem is I have a sweet tooth, I love cupcakes and cookies. However, I really notice the difference in the gym when I haven’t been sticking to the plan — and so do my coaches.

Where and when do you do your best work?

In the boxing ring. However, the reason I’m able to do my best work here is due to all the hard work I’ve put in before this time. I set my goals and focus entirely on these. I know I have to make sacrifices to achieve these goals, but it’s all worth it when I get into the ring knowing that I’ve done everything possible to prepare by myself to face my opponent.

Have you had a recent “Aha!” moment or breakthrough?

The moment that really changed things for me was in 2009 when women’s boxing finally became an Olympic sport.

What is once piece of advice that someone can put into action today?

I think setting yourself goals is key — and then making sure you do everything you can to achieve those goals.

What is one thing you want women to keep in mind as they go through life?

Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something.

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