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Boxing Without Barriers: How to get athletes with disabilities involved in a great sport they might not have considered

By Ottawa Sports Pages, For Boxing Without Barriers

Boxing Without Barriers is for everyone.

When director and head coach Chantal Deketele says that, she means it. The program is for athletes with physical, cognitive or developmental disabilities and it adapts to each individual’s needs.

“We make everything really customized,” Deketele highlights. “You can see some of our boxers are leaning more towards the technical track and some come for social time. Some come for fitness and learning a new sport. It all depends on what people want.”

Based out of the Beaver Boxing Club off Preston Street in Little Italy, the non-contact program offers classes for children, youth and adults. One of the key principles is welcoming athletes as they are.

Deketele acknowledges that boxing isn’t usually top-of-mind for most parents looking to involve their child with a disability in sport, but that initial apprehension tends to fade after they’ve learned more. Participants can also attend a free class to try it out.

“I was really hesitant at first,” recalls Catharine, whose son Albert joined Boxing Without Barriers a year ago. “A kid like Al, lot of things going for him, but boxing’s not a normal sport you think of for people with disabilities.”

After meeting Deketele though, Catharine changed her mind, and Albert quickly fell in love with the sport.

“I always reassure people that it’s non-contact classes,” Deketele underlines. “The focus is on learning the skills of the sport and the fitness that goes along with it.”

Each class runs for an hour. It starts with a group warmup and game to get the energy up, then athletes work in small groups on stations around the gym. There are stations that focus on strength and conditioning — like working with medicine balls or kettlebells — and others that involve skipping, hand pads or core work.

“We try to just keep a variety of things so that we can appeal to everyone’s interests and what they enjoy, and also try to target different fitness skills,” explains Deketele, who is assisted by a large group of fellow volunteer coaches.

Athletes are generally coached in small groups of three or four, while one-on-one support is available to participants who need it.

Class ends with everyone at the punching bags, finishing with a “punch out,” where athletes go as hard as they can to end class with a bang.

Programs run in 8-week blocks, and start for children as young as age 6. Some of the older Boxing Without Barriers participants also help out with the class for 6 to 9-year-olds.

“It’s pretty neat for younger athletes with disabilities to see older athletes with disabilities in a leadership position,” indicates Deketele, who often runs clinics at schools or community centres as well.

“It’s a positive thing for their parents to see too – to be able to see what they could do once they’re in their late teens,” she adds. “Their kid can have a role model who looks like them and has some of the same challenges as them.”

Deketele teaches high school health/phys ed and a deaf/hard-of-hearing class during the day. For the graduate of kinesiology and education programs at McMaster, York and Brock University, Boxing Without Barriers is about much more than building ring skills.

“Lots of athletes with disabilities have different challenges with coordination or muscle tone,” signals Deketele, who also has numerous sport-related certifications. “It’s an extra bit of practice and that will transfer into their everyday life.”

For Albert, it has. He says he enjoys boxing because it makes him feel strong and fast. Once, when he went to the hospital, he told the nurses he was brave because he’s a boxer.

“It’s just like, ‘OK, I can do some new things that are a little bit nerve wracking maybe, but I can still do it,” Deketele recounts. “Just the confidence and the willingness to try new things is huge.”

Catharine is glad Albert joined.

“It’s just a great program,” she underlines. “We’re so excited and we’re happy it’s here.”

Learn more and sign up for the next program Boxing Without Barriers session at

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