‘Never ever underestimate anyone.’ Nouchka Fontijn – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 12

Silver Medalist at the Rio Olympics 2016, European Champion in 2014, 2015 and 2018 and runner-up at the World Champion in 2016 Nouchka Fontijn outlines the difficult way to her Olympic success. How she got into boxing and the strategies she uses to come out strong in a fight.

Nouchka shares

Christian: Today I’m joined by Nouchka Fontijn. Nouchka is a boxer, silver medalist at the Rio Olympics 2016, runner-up at the World Championships in the same year, 2016, European Champion 2014, 2015 and 2018.

Welcome, Nouchka.

Nouchka: Thanks for the invitation.

Nouchka, do you know what your name means?

Nouchka: No, it doesn’t really mean anything, I think. My parents just saw it from a writer called Nouchka van Brakel, and they thought it would be a good name. And it suits my sister’s name Sasha en Lagas a bit Russian.

Christian: I looked it up on the internet and it means an independent determined person, endearing nature, you enjoy working with your hands, so that’s kind of a good thing, and you desire to work on your own dreams.

Noucka: independent and determined person, enjoys working with her hands and desires to work on her own dreams.

Nouchka: My parents made a good choice then.

Nouchka’s darkest moment

Christian: What was your worst moment?

Nouchka: In my life, I don’t have a lot of bad moments yet, so that’s good, I want to keep it that way. In my sports career, I’m also quite lucky not to have really severe injuries.

The worst moment was missing the London Olympics 2012 because that was actually the first Olympics where women’s boxing was introduced.

It was a bit early for me, but still, it was a dream to participate and I could have been there. I didn’t think I would get a medal, or I wouldn’t win it, but I could have been there.

And I won all my bouts the whole year in 2012, every tournament I went to I won a gold medal, and it was only at the qualification tournament that I didn’t win one, so that was a moment that felt like, “Ouch.” That was a dream that didn’t come true then. That was a bit hard, but also, I knew I was still young, and I had another Olympic cycle to go, and things went well later on.

I won all my bouts the whole year in 2012, every tournament I went to I won a gold medal, and it was only at the qualification tournament for the London Olympics 2012 that I didn’t win one.
That was a dream that didn’t come true.

And there was another moment, I think it was the qualification for the Rio Olympics 2016 which was four years later, so I was training almost eight years for the same purpose. We had two tournaments to qualify.

I had two chances – the first was the European qualification, and the second the Worlds qualification. But my chances in the Europeans would be so much better, so we really were focused on the first qualification tournament.

I had a very good draw, but we underestimated the first opponent completely.  And if you look at the bout now, I still think I won it, but I ended up losing, so it was a complete surprise. I qualified later in the World Championships later, so it all turned out well. But that moment was really a shock, like, “What is happening here?” So, that’s another situation to deal with.

I had a very good draw, but we underestimated the first opponent completely, and but I ended up losing, it was a complete surprise.

Christian: If you reflect back, what did you learn from these two moments?

Nouchka: I was young when I tried to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, so it was okay, we just went out on a holiday and I forgot about it. I would try again for the new Olympic cycle, that was enough to win, I didn’t have any medals at the Europeans or Worlds top level yet.

The second experience was really interesting because the tournaments were very close to each other, only four weeks in between the first and the second chance to qualify for Rio 2016. It was in Turkey and I lost on the first day, so I was there for the rest of the week already thinking, “I lost, when I come back home I have to work on it, I still have three more weeks to give it my all to try to participate in the Olympics.”

When I got home all the people from Holland, from my country, and from my village were like, “Oh, what happened? I heard you didn’t qualify. I read in the papers that you’re not going to the Olympics, is that right?”

And that kept on going for the two weeks that we were in Holland, so that was really interesting because I had to focus on the next goal, I was thinking about the new qualification moments, but all the people around me were still pulling me back to what happened in Turkey. So that was really interesting trying to keep focusing while others were trying to get me out of that focus.

It all turned out well, and after a while, you can laugh about it. And of course, I learned to never ever underestimate anyone anymore, so that was a good lesson; but it was an expensive lesson.

I learned to never ever underestimate anyone anymore, that was a good lesson, but it was an expensive lesson.

Nouchka’s best moment

Christian: What was your best moment?

Nouchka: The moment when I did qualify for the Rio Olympic Games. To qualify for the Olympics was maybe even harder than to be there because there were 36 boxers in the World Championships and only the first boxers were going to qualify. So, I knew I had to win three bouts in a row or I’m out.

To qualify for the Olympics was maybe even harder than to be there.

And when we were in Rio there were only 12 boxers left, so then you know, “Now I’m here, now I’m going for a medal and for nothing else.” But the qualification was hard.

I had been trying since 2012, so it’s been a long cycle. And I had to win three bouts, I won the first, I won the second. You can’t really think about it all the time like, “I have to win tonight, I have to win this bout or I’m out.” But you have to do it, so don’t think about it too much.

Then the bout started and in the first round I was already down, she was up in points. I still had three more rounds, that was only like six minutes to make it up, and fortunately, I was able to, it was like, “Okay, it worked out, we did it.” And then it’s actually only getting started. Good experience.

The bout started and in the first round, I was already down. I still had three more rounds, that was only like six minutes to make it up.

Christian: I heard there were plans to name a street after you in your hometown, did that happen?

Nouchka: Yes. I think they are building the houses now, so I think they will open that street maybe next year.

Nouchka’s advise to a younger Nouchka Fontijn

Christian: If you could go back in time 10/15 years, what advice would you give your younger self?

Nouchka: Sometimes I think when I have a daughter I’m not going to let her box, so maybe I wouldn’t give my younger self any advice.

I only started when I was 19, I made a switch from the Taekwondo. Maybe people would say, “Why didn’t you start earlier?” But I’m actually happy it turned out how it turned out because boxing is not a sport that you start at the age of five, it’s not like Judo where you start early. When you are 12/13 you can do your first boxing bout.

We see that when boxers come from the youth and junior weight categories and they go up to elite it’s a big step, so it seems like it doesn’t really matter if you box in the first years or not. That experience comes later.

In sports, I think it’s okay to do Taekwondo or some kind of sport, and I think I learned a lot in the Taekwondo because that is where my fighting spirit came up. It’s also a bit physical and you have to think about it.

In karate, you have all the techniques and styles and that makes you see a person and copy what they do because you have to think. With all the punches you have to think, “How is his feet or hands?” You really have to observe well, and I think that helped me when I went into boxing, you see someone do something and you just copy it, so that helped.

Sometimes I think when I have a daughter I’m not going to let her box.

Christian: You said it seems like it’s not that important if you make a transition sooner or later, is that also true with the skill acquisition in terms of learning basic techniques?

Nouchka: Yes, I think so, but I don’t know for sure. You just see some boxers from Junior level and they have to start all over again, that’s how it feels.

I was 19 when I started, and women’s boxing was at a low level back in the days, but we’re raising the game now. So, maybe I am lucky that I could go with the flow up to the next level, but I’m happy the way that went.

Nouchka’s success habits

Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful athlete and person?

Nouchka: Well, I think it all starts with a little bit of discipline and passion. 10 years ago when I went to the boxing club for the first time, I didn’t really like it. I only went there to become better in Taekwondo, someone said, “You should go to the boxing gym.” And so, I did, but I didn’t really like it the first time, it was all big men and sweat all over the place. But I did feel my arms hurt terribly and I thought, “Okay, it must be good for me.”

It all starts with a little bit of discipline and passion.

So, I went the next week, and then my trainer said, “Come here and show me something. Oh, you’re good. Do you want to go to the competition?” That was really nice, but it starts with passion where you say, “I like this sport and I want to go every day again and again.” That’s number one, I think you have to love it, or you won’t be successful.

You have to love it, or you won’t be successful.

But we see that a lot of times in the boxing gym. We see some boys coming in and they’re there every day, they’re training every day, they’re training hard, but after three months there is no focus. So, I think focus is important and also the discipline every day even when the sport isn’t nice.

Sometimes you get punched in the face, and it’s not always fun. But you just have to stand up again and the next day things will go better if you keep on doing it. I also had some periods where sometimes it’s not working out. You go to the gym and you get beat up and you go the next time and you get beat up again. But if you keep on working on the things you have to work on, things will go better today or tomorrow. I think that’s important.

You just have to stand up again and the next day things will go better if you keep on doing it.

Christian: If we’re talking about discipline, you are in a sport that has weight categories or also weight management plays a role, so how much do you go over your competition when you are off-season?

Nouchka: My normal weight is just in the middle of the weight class. My weight class is up to 75 kilos, from 69 to 75, and that is just if I train and eat normally. I am 74 or 75 kg maximum, so I don’t have to do a lot for that. If I were to stop training and eat whatever I want for three weeks, then I will be maybe maximum 77 kg.

But I’m lucky to not have that struggle because a lot of boxers also in the lower weight categories are training with sauna suits and that’s terrible, they can’t eat anything. And I’m always strong, when I have to compete, I’m always able to eat what my body needs for training. And a lot of boxers are already dehydrated, and they have to train hard and eat almost nothing, so I’m lucky.

I’m always strong, when I have to compete, I’m always able to eat what my body needs for training.

Nouchka’s morning routine

Christian: Do you have a morning routine?

Nouchka: No. I just wake up, have breakfast. When I’m at home I walk with the dog, but it’s nothing special actually. But I always go out and have a 30-minute walk with the dog at least. It’s a nice start, but it’s not something that’s scheduled.

Christian: Are there any other structures or routines in your day that you follow?

Nouchka: No, not really. But now we are six weeks before the World Championships, so I try to straighten things out, like a lifestyle, I just write it down. I have to go to bed at 11:00 every night and sleep at least eight hours and things like that. I take rests in between the sessions and also have fun, have fun every day, that’s my goal, just in between the sessions also do something you like.

Six weeks before the World Championships, I straighten my lifestyle out. I write it down, I have to go to bed 11:00 every night, sleep at least 8 hours, take rests in between the sessions and also have fun, have fun every day.

Because we’re working so much in the gym, we also think we have to do everything about it when we can. When I’m at home I don’t want to work out at home, never, because home is a place to rest.

But I’m working on analyzing my opponents and stuff now. But I don’t really like doing this. Some people like to watch it every day or watch themselves; I don’t like to watch myself boxing. It’s not something that I look forward to. I’m always thinking maybe tomorrow or the day after. But now I’m telling myself to do it every day for 15 minutes, only watch one opponent or watch my own sparring. And I have to analyze that to know what to improve.

How to prepare for important moments

Christian: How do you prepare for important moments?

Nouchka: In my mind I’m thinking about it a lot. And it also goes in steps, because when we go to European Championships or World Championships, I always print out the schedule, I always want it to see what I did and to see what I’m going to do. So, that’s in the living room on the table, so I see that every day and I write what I did, what I’m going to do, like planning when is the rest day and stuff.

I always print out the schedule, I always want it to see what I did and to see what I’m going to do.

I have a good influence on my schedule myself because I’m just working with two coaches and it’s a really individualized program, so that’s ideal because we can say, “Today I’m really tired because it was a bit tough session yesterday, so today we’ll take it slow.” And that’s good, so I’m busy with it every day.

And when you leave for a tournament, you’re really counting the days. Like I know today is five weeks and three days till the next event. I’m counting every day, so I know where I am and how much time I have left. And just before you’re leaving it’s also like, “Okay it’s the last strength and conditioning training and it’s the last boxing training at home, and then it’s the first boxing training in the country that you box.”

I’m counting every day, so I know where I am and how much time I have left.

And things are getting sharper at the end, so in the start of the program we have a lot of volume, and later on, training sessions become shorter and more intense. It’s always the same things actually – a lot of pads, we work with pads on the hands and some shadow boxing. Then in the tournament we always have the drill, that’s also a moment to look forward to, an exciting moment also because then you’re going to know what your top two medals can be.

We never really know what day we fight, so we arrive at the tournament and then we all have to weigh in, and then you know it’s tonight or it’s tomorrow or it’s in three days. And then we make another plan, “Okay, we have three days, so we’re going to watch videos today and train a little bit on it.” And then you have to adjust to the different circumstances where you are. Sometimes it’s cold outside or it’s hot or there is no place to train, so we will train in the parking lot or in the hotel room.

We never really know what day we fight, you always have to adjust to the different circumstances.

Christian: And then in the moment itself when you step in that ring at the Olympic final, how do you get ready? 

Nouchka: Well, just like all the other fights actually. My day is always pretty much the same. I don’t do a lot that day. We have the weigh-in, it’s always pretty early like 7:00 in the morning, so sometimes we have to go in the bus at 6:30 to go to the venue to weigh in, then we go back, have breakfast. And sometimes we watch a video of the opponents, but sometimes we already did that two days before, it depends on whether you fought the last night or not. And we like have a little walk or something.

We don’t really train on the day that we fight. So sometimes in the past, my trainer acts like he is my opponent to adjust to the styles, but we don’t do intense training. But we do a walk like to shake the legs out and stuff and get some fresh air. And then we have lunch, and I’m actually in bed the whole day. The rest of the day we’re just in the room doing nothing. And I always write it down – what am I going to do? How is the day going to look? Like 6:00 get up, 7:00 breakfast. Then maybe at 4:00 I wake up, take a shower, check all the bags, do we have everything again? And you just go there, maybe listen to some music or something, then it’s showtime.

And of course, we always make a plan on how to beat the opponents, so that’s basically what’s going through my head the whole day. And sometimes I even want to stop it, but it keeps on going, you can’t stop it because I have to remember it. Again, you just try to have that planned out so well in your head that it comes out in the right moment because sometimes we’re in the ring and it’s just instincts that are working. I hear the coach in the corner, I can hear what he says, but the rest is just instinct, it’s just happening. So, I want to have that plan so clear in my mind that it will become instinctive.

We always make a plan how to beat the opponent. I want to have that planned out so well in my head that it comes out in the right moment. Because when I am in the ring it’s just instinct that’s working. So, I want to have that plan so clear in my mind that it will become instinctive.

Christian: There is this famous quote from Mike Tyson – someone said, “Oh, I have a plan”, and he says, “You have that plan until I hit you in the mouth.”

Nouchka: Yes, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. Sometimes the plan is not working, or I want to do what we discussed and it’s not working. Maybe you’re really strong and the plan is to attack you and get out because otherwise you will hit me, and it will be too much. But sometimes moving is not going the way you want, and then you have to make a new plan in split seconds, or you will hear, “Stop going in and out, do something else.” You just have to do that.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.

I’m not always feeling what I should do. Sometimes I’m inside there and it’s not working and I’m doing something. But my coach is better at it, fortunately. He knows, so he sees what’s happening from another side, and he says, “Step out, go back with the left hook.” And maybe that’s the solution, so it’s always better to listen, and that’s not even easy. Sometimes you hear what he says and it’s not even easy to do it at that moment. Or sometimes you’re really, really tired without a reason, and you’re halfway in the third round and you can’t go anymore. And you have to keep trying and make sure it’s enough to get a win.

How to overcome setbacks

Christian: How do you overcome setbacks when things don’t go your way?

Nouchka: A lot of times things do go my way. But like I said, a few years ago when I didn’t qualify for that tournament, I just went on a holiday. You just have to think, “Boxing is important for me, but on the other hand it’s just a part of my life.”

So, when things are not going in the right direction you have to maybe take a step back for a moment, enjoy other things in life and come back later. Maybe stay away from the boxing gym for two weeks, don’t do any workout, and then you’ll feel like you want to come back again.

When things are not going in the right direction you have to take a step back for a moment, enjoy other things in life and come back later.

Christian: In preparation for the Olympic Games in 2016 there was a lot of movement in the Federation and uncertainty of training location and coach and here and there. There was also a bit of movement around you and I remember you and I sat down in the cafeteria, and I don’t know exactly what I said, but I remember that you said, “I’m just here for my boxing, I just want to improve my boxing.” So, clearly everything that happened must have affected you somehow, I guess. But how did you stay on track so that you could still get the result you wanted to get?

Nouchka: It was actually in 2014/2015 that we had a lot of troubles. And it’s funny how it all started, but anyway there was a moment that my personal coach couldn’t be my coach anymore and I had to work with someone else, and I didn’t truly believe in the way they think we should do it.

Then what happened was, I actually took a step back and I was working with my personal coach but then they actually said, “You have to come with us, or you’re not in the team, or you’re not going to the European Championships.” That was my main goal, I was working for that. So, I had to make a decision, “Am I going to stick with my plan and not participate?” I’ve been training all the time for the European Championships, so I took that step and I went with them. The way it worked out is because I won the gold medal there. So, people always say that if you keep performing then you will end up at the highest point.

After that European Championships, I came back to the Federation and I said, “I don’t want to do this anymore on your way.” I actually said, “If I have to do it this way I’m not going further.” And in my mind, I didn’t know if it was the right step to take, but they said, “Okay, you’re actually right.” So, they gave me permission to train with my own trainer. And the best part is we were free, we could go on and do what we wanted to do all the time. There were no more struggles anymore, only thinking about boxing. And then European Championships was gold and European Games was gold, so it all worked out well. And we’re really happy that things are better now, there’s no struggle anymore. The Federation is behind us and the NOC is behind us, and that’s good.

Nouchka’s role model

Christian: Do you have a role model?

Nouchka: Not really. No, I haven’t met one yet. Maybe the perfect role model doesn’t exist. You know, maybe I made one in my mind that I want to become. I think I know what I should do to be the best version of me, and just strive to be that person.

I know what I should do to be the best version of me, and just strive to be that person.

The best advice she ever received

Christian: What’s the best advice you have received, and who gave it to you?

Nouchka: One good advice was on the way to the European Game matches was from Francesco, also in the National Federation here. We were on our way to a bout with an opponent, that I already beat three times, but I was getting a little bit bored because I had to fight her again. But he had some experiences and he said, “You beat her before, so you have to make sure that in the first 30 seconds she feels like you’re going to beat her again.”

And that’s what I kept in mind, and sometimes when I fight a girl now that I already fought, I’m thinking about that, so I let her know in the first 30 seconds that feeling, that she has the feeling like, “Oh gosh, it’s happening again, she’s beating me again.” So, it has to be a really good clear shot in her face in the first 30 seconds. And when I’m in the ring I’m even thinking, “It’s going to happen again. It’s happening again.” That’s a good one, it’s a funny one.

“You beat her before, so you have to make sure that in the first 30 seconds she feels like you’re going to beat her again.”

A typical training day in the life of a Boxer 

Christian: How does a typical training day look like?

Nouchka: I like to train twice a day. Some people say only once, or some people say three times. And we just came back from the USA, and some people train four times there in a day, and in my opinion, that’s way too much.

I like to do two good training sessions or two boxing sessions, or one strength and conditioning and one boxing session. So, I have a lot of time because both of the gyms are 15 minutes from my house and I have a free day also.

Some people say you should train only once, some people say three times, some people train four times in a day, I like to do two good training sessions.

Of course, you have to train, you have to rest, and you have to make sure you cook, and you sleep right and stuff. Our gym opens at 10:00. As I said, I walk with the dog in the morning, have breakfast and then go to the gym at 10:00. On a day that I box twice that’s like a training session from 10:00 to 12:00, then I just have lunch and go out with the dog again or do something else. And then in the evening, it’s boxing with opponents, like sparring or stuff or a bag session.

And on other days I have strength and conditioning sessions in the afternoon, so then I have a free morning where I can also do some work as a personal trainer or some other boxing work. Strength and conditioning sessions are also really quite intense, so I like to make the schedule that if I have strength and conditioning training that the evening training is not sparring, so that’s more technical training on the mitts or on the bags because bags don’t hit back. So, if you’re tired, there is no problem, you can just go on and when you are tired you just keep on going and it doesn’t really matter if you’re slowing down. But when you’re sparring and you’re really tired then you’re just going to get punches, so try to make a good schedule.

Nouchka’s view on conditioning for boxers

Christian: From the standpoint of a strength and conditioning coach you see a lot of boxers believe in running, hours and hours of running every day, first thing in the morning. I remember a time when I was still a student we were in a hotel to host workshops and Graciano Rocchigiani, a German professional boxer happened to stay in the same hotel. And I saw every morning he ran two hours or something. What’s your take on that?

Nouchka: I don’t know why that is, because I think a good cardio session is good for a lot of things in your body, so I do believe in that. And I do sometimes run for 30 minutes or 45, that’s just jogging once in a while.

But I would like to have strength and conditioning instead of running, because if you’re running it should be intervals because boxing is only three times, three minutes, and in the three minutes it’s not one tempo, it’s up and down.

And I think I do get my endurance and stuff from other sessions, as you can also work with that in sparring or on the bags with interval sessions on the bags, and also in strength and conditioning because my strength and conditioning is not like power-lifting all day but it’s intense, it’s also a high-level. And in the strength and conditioning gym, we also run stairs or something, but that’s short, like run the stairs twice, pick up a sled twice and run again, just short interval sessions actually.

And I do believe in strength and conditioning because a lot of boxers don’t do anything with weights, and I think being strong in the ring is just something that you should work on. Sometimes I feel like boxing seems like a sport like you don’t have any weights in your gloves so it’s just in the air, so it feels like why should you be strong or something? But of course, you feel the impact when you get a punch in your face. I also get punches in my face, but you have to make a punch in the face of your opponent so that she doesn’t forget, that she doesn’t want to attack you.

I do believe in strength and conditioning, not a lot of boxers do. You feel the impact when you get a punch in your face, or when clinching you can feel when you are stronger and hear your opponent breathing really heavy.

And the strength and conditioning is not only for the punches, but there is a lot of clinching in boxing, there are a lot of moments that we will be back-to-back to each other and then you can just feel it when you’re stronger. Sometimes we’re like that and I just feel my opponent breathing really heavy, and then I know she’s breathing really heavy and I’m closer, so I should hear myself breathing heavy and that’s not the case. I feel like I can beat her in this. I don’t know the saying in English, but they say you are as strong as your weakest…

Christian: A chain is as strong as its weakest link.

Nouchka: So, also in boxing the whole body should be strong. If you don’t have a strong core or something, I will push you back. So, I should be on point and I think you have to work on that in the gym. And it’s also a lot of injury prevention I think, stuff like that.

Nouchka’s interview nomination

Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?

Nouchka: I don’t really know who I would like to nominate, but I would like to nominate a sport, so you can choose a person. I would like to nominate rugby. I know it’s not in the National building here or in Arnhem, but I think rugby is also a sport that’s gaining popularity, like rugby sevens and stuff, and it’s a rough sport so I would like to know more about it.

Christian: I would love to get someone from the All Blacks.

Where can you find Noushka Fontijn

Christian: Where can people find you?

Nouchka: Just search my name Nouchka Fontijn on Facebook, Instagram.

Instagram

Facebook profile

Facebook athlete page

Twitter

Christian: Nouchka, thanks a lot for your time, it was really good.

Nouchka: Thank you.

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