|Canada's boxer Mary Spencer carries her country's flag during the closing ceremony of the Pan American Games in Guadalajara October 30, 2011. (REUTERS/Jose Miguel Gomez)
TORONTO - There’s a giant statue of a rodent in Wiarton.
It’s an albino groundhog, Wiarton Willie, who apparently has the ability to predict whether there’s going to be an early spring or not.
Willie’s huge in Wiarton. And rightly so. There aren’t many homo sapiens who can predict the change of seasons, so a rodent to be able to do that is pretty spectacular.
Still, if boxer Mary Spencer lives up to expectations at the 2012 London Olympics, she may very well surpass Willie as the biggest celebrity ever to come out of Wiarton, though she’s not banking on it, given Willie’s God-like status.
“No,” said Spencer, when asked if a gold medal in London will propel her past Willie in popularity in her hometown. “How can you beat the groundhog? Everyone knows the groundhog. There’s pictures of Willie on every street post.
“Besides,” she added. “He’s such a cute little guy.”
Okay, Spencer, who was born in Wiarton and lived in nearby Cape Croker before moving with her family to Windsor when she was 6, may never overtake Willie in popularity, at least up there in the Bruce Peninsula, but if she does win the 75 kg gold in London as expected, she may become the first amateur boxer since Shawn O’Sullivan and Willie deWit in 1984 to become a household name in Canada.
Spencer, who won the gold at the recent Pan Am Games in Guadalajara and carried the Canadian flag in the closing ceremony, realizes that her life is going to change in the months and weeks leading up to London.
As a three-time world champion, and recent Pan Am Games winner, she will be one of the few Canadian athletes expected to win gold in London. On top of that, London will represent the first time women’s boxing will be contested at an Olympics, so the attention on Spencer will be immense.
But rather than shy away from that, Spencer embraces it. Obviously, from a personal standpoint, winning the gold is her ultimate dream. But she also realizes that a gold could help get amateur boxing back on its feet in Canada. And that’s very important to her.
“The best way I can help boxing in this country is by winning a gold medal,” she said. “And I take that very seriously.”
Amateur boxing in Canada, at least internationally, has struggled in recent years, with funding cutbacks one of the reasons. In years past, Canadian boxers consistently won medals at Olympics. That’s changed. The last Canadian to win a boxing medal at the Olympics was a silver in the heavyweight division by David Defiagbon at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
It has become a huge struggle for Canada to even qualify boxers for Olympics now, never mind win medals. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Canada qualified only five boxers and, at the 2008 Beijing Games, only one. At the recent world championships for men, which acted as an Olympic qualifying event, nary a Canadian got past the second round. There are more opportunities to qualify for London, but it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if not a single Canadian male boxes in London.
But by winning a gold in London, Spencer hopes to help lift the profile of boxing, for both men and women, in Canada. She’s hopeful that her continued success, and that of her teammate Mandy Bujold of Kitchener, who also won gold at the Pan Ams, will turn the funding situation around for Boxing Canada.
“It’s a (vicious) circle,” said Spencer. “(Boxing Canada) does not get money because we’re not getting results. And we don’t get results because we don’t get money. So you break that cycle by getting results without the money. And I feel like there’s going to be a lot of boxers in this country who are going to benefit from a gold medal at the Olympics. And if I can do that and change things around for boxing in this country. That’s my goal.”
The last thing many athletes would want to do is put extra pressure on themselves heading into an Olympics.
But Mary Spencer says bring it on.