Shelley Watts, Boxer.

Photos: Elesa Kurtz
Words: Chris Dutton

Shelley Watts' Olympic Games dream is driven by a simple phrase pinned to the vision board she carries around the world that acts as the inspiration for her gold-medal charge.

Her "fight for your fairytale" mentality is the same message she wants to pass on to a generation of aspiring Olympians as she begins her mission in Rio.

The Canberra-based boxer knows better than anyone that nothing comes easy on an Olympic journey and after four years living out of a suitcase and crashing on couches, Watts wants to make the most of her moment to shine.

Watts, rated as one of Australia's gold medal hopes, will make her Olympic debut when she steps into the ring against Italy's Irma Testa on Saturday morning.

The world will get a glimpse of a steely resolve borne out of doing things the hard way for her entire life.

But this is the story of the sacrifices she made to get there and why she wants to show the world that a small-town girl from Laurieton in northern NSW can match it with the best.

Along the way there's been trips to the Philippines where a shower was a luxury once every four days, a stint as a bar wench, missing family milestones and the prospect of homelessness after the Olympics.


"My journey hasn't been easy, but nothing that's worth having comes easy," Watts said.

"I really hope that when I step into the ring at the Olympic Games, people see my journey as someone who has fought for her fairytale.

"I'm just a small town girl who only started boxing six years ago - my parents are amazing people, but they don't have money. I started working to help with money before I was 15.

"I love being able to show everyone from Laurieton, especially the young kids, that everything and anything is possible if you believe in your dream and you're willing to put the work in to achieve them."

Watts is oozing confidence and enthusiasm ahead of her first bout at the biggest sporting event in the world.

It comes just six years after she started boxing when she tested herself in the sport as part of a recovery from a knee injury in 2010.

Watts rose to prominence when she won Commonwealth Games gold in Glasgow two years ago and she's put her law degree on hold to pursue her Olympic goals.

To give herself the best chance, Watts moved to Canberra to live at the Australian Institute of Sport and has made every decision since based around chasing Olympic gold.

That means a strict diet to watch her weight in a sport where one gram can make a giant difference.

It also means standing under a dripping rain gutter for a shower during an intense training block in Asia after four days without running water.

"What don't people see?" Watts says.

"They don't see the sweat, tears, breakdowns, hard work. I train 16 sessions per week for 10 weeks to be in the condition I am in when you all see me on TV competing.

"I don't see my family for months on end. I sometimes go weeks without even speaking to them so I can concentrate and focus on what I need to do. I don't have time to see friends.

"I don't go out for dinner or to parties. I don't get public holidays or weekends. Every single day, every single decision that I make that day is centred around my boxing, my schedule and what I need to do to make sure I can succeed at the highest level."

But Watts never complains, even if she has to take her own toilet paper around the Philippines or use a bucket to shower because there's no water at training camps.

Watts doesn't have a fixed residential address and gets her mail posted to her grandmas in Laurieton. Her uncle opens "important looking mail" every three or four months.

She describes herself as gypsy who goes wherever boxing takes her along a career path that has turned into a dream.

Watts used the AIS as her base for the majority of her build up to the Olympics, but at times she was spread between Canberra, Sydney, Los Angeles and Asia in the space of a few days for training and promotional opportunities.

Kaye Scott has become Watts' training partner and and Shara Romer has become a sounding board to help Watts over every mental and physical hurdle.

But there are times when she finds herself alone at the AIS, constantly thinking about what she has to do to chase the gold medal she so desperately craves.


"A lot of people who have been to the AIS have mentioned how "boring" it is… but really, I think that's a cop out," Watts said.

"It is the Australian Institute of Sport – not a theme park or playground. The facility was established for high performance sport and that means having the best facilities to help athletes reach their full potential.

"You can never switch off really from the goal you're chasing. Sure, you can switch off in a moment, for balance and that is needed but every single decision you make is made based on your training, your dream."

Watts finds balance via her passion for the NRL and South Sydney Rabbitohs.

The Rabbitohs have invited her to training sessions and games this year and they've acted as a good mental break from the Olympic preparation.

It's not in Watts' DNA to do things by half measures. So when she's talking about the Rabbitohs and meeting the players, she does so with the same enthusiasm that she hopes will lift her to Olympic gold.

"I was speaking to a friend about food cravings recently and I wrote, 'I cant wait to just be normal for a little bit'," Watts said.

"But straight away in my head, I knew that was wrong. I don't want to be 'normal'. The journey I am on right now is absolutely amazing and breathtaking and I wouldn't give it up or away for anything."

Watts also wants to be an ambassador for women's boxing and give girls a pathway in the sport.

Women's boxing made it's Olympic debut in London four years ago and it was only made legal in NSW in 2010 - the year Watts started her career.

But the Olympic dream means sacrificing a wage. She earned just $3000 for two years in a row as she focused on boxing and her life is built around direct athlete funding grants.

In the build up to Rio she's managed to secure ambassador roles with Samsung and Optus.

"As it stands, I will technically be 'jobless and homeless' post Rio," Watts said.

"I will have plenty of places to stay at, both at home with my family and also around Australia with some amazing friends, but I wont have what many people talk about as the best thing about coming home – my own bed. I don't have one.

"When I do go home, I sleep on my mum's couch. I made the decision to take my life and a few bags to the AIS for training and it has paid off, but it does come with a price.

"I have a lot of ideas and hopes for the future with boxing, both inside and outside the ring and also with mentoring, inspiring and motivating women and girls, but I guess time will tell with the whole post-Rio scenario."

So who is Watts fighting for in Rio?

"Your family creates the person you are. My family instilled drive in me from a young age, or seeing how they lived, instilled drive in me to make them proud of someone I could and have become," Watts said.

"Everything I do, I think about trying to create a good example for my little brothers, Samuel and Jy and for my niece and nephews, Lillyana, Noah, Eli and Benji.

"I need to be someone to them that they can look up to and be proud of. I need to show them that anything Is possible and nothing makes me happier than to be at home with them and seeing the pride in their eyes when I succeed.

"My brother Samuel doesn't show much emotion, he's a pretty laid back character but I will never forget watching the video of him crying when I won the gold medal in Glasgow – it absolutely melted me."


The last box to tick on her Rio list is to return to Australia with a gold medal around her neck.

"For me personally, a gold medal means history. And I want that history making feat next to my name.

"I want to put Boxing on the map. I want the world to know we can box in Australia and I also want any Australian to know that we can conquer on the world stage. Winning that gold medal will do that."