Benny won’t let coronavirus crisis floor her Olympic hopes

Having made boxing history once, Tasmyn Benny wants to repeat it in the Olympic ring - and she won't let a deviation in her journey catch her off-guard. 

Tasmyn Benny’s road to Tokyo has been forced to make a detour - swerving to avoid the coronavirus. Yet a change in her course has not deterred the Commonwealth Games boxing bronze medallist, who's focused on making it to her first Olympic Games.

The Olympic qualifying event for Asia-Oceania was scheduled to take place this week in Wuhan, China – the epicentre of the new virus crisis, which has now claimed more than 900 lives.

The organisers decided to cancel the tournament, not willing to risk the health of competitors, after there were nine fatalities.

Benny, 21, was “peaking” for the tournament with a group of nine New Zealand boxers hoping to qualify for the July Olympics. They were at a two-week training camp in Thailand, just days from travelling to Wuhan, when they learned of the cancellation.

Now an alternative venue and date have been determined for the qualifier - in Amman, Jordan, early next month.

“We’ll have to start our training programme again, but there’s not much else I can do about the cancellation,” Benny says.

“The extra time is probably good though, because a few of us got sick for a couple of days in Thailand. So it’s given my body time to recover.”

Boxing New Zealand’s high performance director, Mark Keddell, says nothing has changed in terms of Benny’s chances to qualify.

“In the meantime, she keeps training and it’s our role to deal with the background administrative work,” he says.

“Tasmyn is a solid, consistent worker. She is one of those people who takes everything in their stride, so this setback won’t unsettle her.”

Benny will need to finish in the top six to satisfy International Olympic Committee requirements and put her in a good position to show the New Zealand Olympic Committee she deserves a spot on the team for Tokyo.

To help kick-start her tournament training again, Benny will now head to Europe for a training camp alongside Kiwi boxing team-mates, including fellow female Commonwealth bronze medallist Troy Garton.

Keddell has organised a week of sparring with the Italian boxing team, en route to Amman.

“Italy will be another good opportunity for Tasmyn and the team to prepare. It’s critical they acclimatise to different time zones and environments so we can give our boxers the best possible chance to be successful,” he says.

“Tasmyn fights hard, moves well and she’s young, so she has time on her side to develop even more with every opportunity.”

Tasmyn Benny in her 48kg semifinal bout against Northern Ireland's Kristina O'Hara at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Photo: Getty Images.

As boxing is not a top three tier sporting code for High Performance Sport New Zealand funding, preparations and training camps are organised by Boxing NZ.

“We all do this for the love of the sport - volunteering and putting in time and energy means we win when the boxers can give their best,” says Keddell.

With so many other self-funded codes and athletes vying for a place in New Zealand’s Olympic team, Keddell says Boxing NZ needs to be innovative.

“The reality is we need to do things differently for our fighters to keep them being competitive, because we have bigger nations with more resources coming up against us.”

“Ingenuity is in our DNA. We need to use that to our advantage and ‘out-Kiwi’ everyone else in the ring.”

Benny’s creative flair and consistent work ethic has given her a steady flow of competition throughout her five-year career.

Last year, the flyweight came home with a silver medal, losing a tight contest in her final at the Boxam Valenciana tournament in Spain.

Benny and David Nyika, one of New Zealand’s most decorated amateur boxers, also finished champions in their weight division at the Trans-Tasman Super Eight in Auckland.

“Tasmyn drew the world-ranked number one in the first round of the 2018 world champs, which is always difficult,” Keddell says. “But she knows if she wants the experience, it’s the best place to test her skills and it will help with understanding benchmarks.”

It’s a pretty impressive resume for the Thames schoolgirl netballer who started boxing in a garage with her dad at the age of 16.

From that first training session, Benny fell in love with the sport. Her efforts have landed her in the history books as the first woman to win a boxing medal for New Zealand at a Commonwealth Games.

She managed this feat as a teenager in her first Games, on the Gold Coast in 2018, when she brought home the bronze medal in the 48kg division. But the southpaw fighter wants more.

She wants to stand a couple levels higher on the podium at the next Commonwealth Games, and the Olympics.

"There’s not much difference getting hit by someone at 51kg, so I’ll be fine" - Tasmyn Benny

“I definitely want to improve on my last medal result at the Commonwealth Games in 2022 and my big goal is the Olympics,” says Benny, who’s of Ngāti Porou, Ngāpuhi, Waikato and European heritage.

“I’m getting stronger and gaining experience by fighting and sparring some great fighters and I’m just taking everything in as I go.”

Fortunately for Benny, fighters from Uzbekistan - considered one of the best nations in amateur boxing - were also training in Thailand in the lead-up to the Asia-Oceania qualifier.

“These are all good opportunities for our boxers to be among the best in the business and to learn from those situations because at the end of the day everything helps them improve,” says Keddell.

In her quest to make the Olympics, Benny has gone up a weight class to 51kg.

She’s comfortable fighting at that weight, having previously experienced wins in that division – including the 2017 Australian Golden Gloves, where she finished second.

“I don’t feel like there’s much of a difference between the weight classes because I spar with heavier people most of the time. There’s not much difference getting hit by someone at 51kg, so I’ll be fine,” says Benny.

Despite the bumpy road to Tokyo, Benny has not rested since returning home from the Thailand training camp.

She travels to Auckland from Thames three times a week to train with her coach, Cameron Todd, at the Wreck Room. Todd coached his wife, Alexis Pritchard, to become the first woman to win a bout at an Olympic Games, in London 2012.

“I usually train six days a week doing different types of movement, like sprint training, fitness, sparring, bag work and pads and stuff,” says Benny. “When I’m not travelling to Auckland, I work out of Never Surrender Gym in Thames.”

When she won her bronze medal on the Gold Coast, Benny was an ordinary medic in the Royal New Zealand Navy. Now, when she's not fighting or training, she's working for her dad, blending oils for cars and machinery.  

Boxing, Keddell says, is all about strategy. Anyone can punch, and be fit, but boxers need to learn to play chess with their hands and feet to get on top.

At last year’s national championships, where Benny won the 51kg division, she also took home the Bobby Johnson Cup, awarded to the most scientific women’s boxer.

Come early June, she will know if her strategic moves will be rewarded with an opportunity to make history again, this time in Tokyo at her first Olympic Games.

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