Ginny Fuchs: Boxing saved me from my OCD

The USA boxer, who will make her Olympic debut in Tokyo this summer, reveals how she was hospitalised by her unrelenting need to be clean, why boxing was her saviour, and how she became known as ‘The Pirate’.
By Andrew Binner

Boxing was perhaps a strange choice of sport for Virginia Fuchs, given the current USA captain was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) from a young age.

The Texas native’s OCD means that her mind will not rest until she feels like her body is clean.

In the sweaty world of boxing, where trading blood and bacteria with your opponent can be the norm, how does Fuchs cope?

“Boxing is the only thing that saved me from my OCD,” Fuchs told Olympics.com.

“Boxing is like therapy for me because it takes my mind out of that OCD world.

"I go into the gym and my main focus is on getting better at my job. I know that when we are sparring I’m getting other people's sweat and blood on me, but I don't think about that because my main focus is to get better, and to win the [Olympic] gold medal."

“If I see a dirty glove touch the ground and then I'm about to spar that person, I might have a moment where I’m like ‘Oh, they're about to hit me with that dirty glove’, but I'm able to immediately disregard that thought, get in the ring, and do what I came to do.

“If I didn't have boxing, I'm really scared of how my life would look. So thank God for boxing.”

Ginny Fuch’s early mental sruggles

Growing up, Ginny’s parents encouraged her to play a variety of team sports, and it quickly became her dream to compete at the Olympics.

But while undergoing treatment for anorexia as a 12-year-old, doctors noticed some additional unusual behaviour. She was subsequently also diagnosed with OCD.

“Personally, I didn't consider that I had a problem. I just thought I liked to be more clean than my friends,” the 33-year-old recalled.

“But I do remember, I was once on the school bus in fifth grade and I was looking at the ground. I was like ‘Oh, this is filthy, this is nasty.’ And then I saw my friend's backpack on the floor and I realised that mine was on the floor. Later that same day, my friend came over to do homework with me, and we go into my room and she put her backpack on my bed and I flipped out. I take my comforter off to wash it and my friend’s like, ‘Oh, I'm sorry’.

“She didn't understand and I didn't necessarily understand why I thought that way. These thoughts just entered my mind and I couldn't stop thinking about that.”

Getting hooked on boxing

The troubled teenager started regular treatment to manage her condition, which ensured that she could keep playing sport.

Fuchs started to show promise as a distance runner, eventually walking on to the Louisiana State University track & field team. But in her sophomore year she made friends with a professional boxer, picked up her first pair of gloves, and became hooked... so to speak.

“I picked it up really, really fast, and I kind of fell in love with it,” she said.

“I knew that there weren't very many women in the game, and I wanted to bring more women more into the sport. So I decided to take my boxing more seriously.”

In 2010, the International Olympic Committee announced that women’s boxing was being added to the Olympic programme for the first time at the London 2012 Games. Winning Olympic gold became Fuch’s No. 1 goal.

“I had wanted to go to the Olympics since I was a little girl for running, but I knew that my talent wouldn't get me there. But I knew that my talent in boxing could.”

Rio 2016 Olympics heartbreak

Fuchs’ plan looked like it was about to bear fruit when she defeated five-time world champion Mary Kom en route to victory in the Rio 2016 test event.

Despite the competition not carrying the status of Olympic qualifying event, the flyweight in her own words, ‘Messed up by looking too far ahead.’ Her dream of winning Olympic gold was dealt a knockout blow when she failed to progress far enough at an official qualifying event to participate.

“I was not focusing on the moment. And actually, that's what my OCD stems from. I'm always so focused and worried about how am I going to be clean enough, blah, blah, blah, instead of just focusing on enjoying the moment. That's the biggest thing I took from not getting to box at Rio.”

However, such was Fuchs’ ability and high regard in the team, she was invited to travel to the Olympics as the team captain, and to mentor the other fighters.

Fuchs won the Rio 2016 Olympic boxing test event, but failed to qualify for the Games themselves.

Following the Games, in which her close friend Claressa Shields retained her Olympic Middleweight title, Fuchs got back to work. She was more determined than ever to have her shot at glory at Tokyo 2020.

The veteran went undefeated in 2017, before winning bronze at the 2018 world championships, and sealing silver at the Pan American Games in 2019.

But just as she looked to be in the form of her life, she was stopped in her tracks in 2019 by a major episode of OCD that saw her end up in hospital.

“It really came back hard,” she said. “In 2019 I was so stuck in my ritual when training, but it was to a point where I felt like I had no control over my behaviours. I've never felt like that in my life and it really scared me."

Fuchs (in red) won the 2020 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team Trials in Louisiana.

After an evaluation in hospital, Fuchs went back into treatment at a facility in Houston. While this has helped her get back into the training ring, she is far from cured of the illness.

“I do this thing called exposure therapy, which is intentionally raises my anxiety as high as it can go,” she said with a cringe. “I'll stick my hand in a trash can and rub my hands all over my face like it's very extreme and intense. Even normal people wouldn't be able to do that!

“I'm still struggling till this day with it really, really bad. But I'm able to stop the behaviour. It might take me a long time or it might take me many tries, but I'm able to stop the behaviour and move on.

“I'm still doing therapy as much as I can, but it’s very expensive, so I have to choose how many times a week I can do treatment.

“One positive thing about the coronavirus for me is that the extra year might give me some more time to get a better hold of my OCD before I go to Tokyo to win the gold.”

Coronavirus: People are kind of living in my world now

Wearing gloves, masks and vigorously cleaning hands has recently become the recommended routine for everyone during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning people have been given a small insight into what life is like for the OCD boxer.

“It’s funny as most people are kind of living in my world now,” she said. “I go to the store and I see everybody disinfecting everything constantly."

But the ‘new normal’ has also served to confuse Fuchs slightly, as her therapy is designed to decrease her fixation on cleanliness.

“My mind is playing tricks on me, because sometimes I think I may have been doing the right thing all this time, and now it's just coming to light in our society. So that's the only kind of twist now with my OCD, that the pandemic measures are possibly working against my therapy.”

Accepting her condition

Although she still suffers heavily with OCD, Fuchs’ therapy - and being open about her issues - has altered her outlook.

“I used to be so ashamed of myself and embarrassed,” she revealed. “I hid my OCD for so long. I still hide some bits from friends, but when I opened up about my condition, I've become more accepting of myself.

“I thought it was a part of me, but now I realise that it's not who I am. It's just something I struggle with.

"And that's the message that I want to get out to people who struggle with any kind of mental health disorder. Don’t hide it and be honest with yourself, and to get the help you need.

“I used to hide it. But when I started explaining it to my friends and family and my teammates, they didn’t judge me. They tried to understand why I did what I did, and that reaction made me feel better.”

Meditation, reggae and pirates

Prodigiously talented and sometimes troubled, Fuchs is far from your average Olympic boxer.

In the often hyper-aggressive world of combat sport, she uses meditation and reggae music to help her prepare for fights.

“Before I go to the arena, I meditate,” she revealed. “I don't sit down… I just focus on my breathing, like, really slow to calm my whole body down.

“I'll be listening to very inspirational music like reggae to give me that good, happy, positive vibe.

“When I’m warming-up and getting wrapped, I visually picture the ref raising my hand and then saying my name. And I'll just imagine that over and over and over again.” - Virginia Fuchs to Olympics.com

Another fun fact about Fuchs, is that she’s known by her teammates as ‘The Pirate.’ And according to her Instagram account, encourages her mentees to follow #PirateLife.

So is it all about searching for gold?

“I grew up on the water and I’ve always just been interested in the life of a pirate,” she said laughing. “Just sailing the waters and going from island to island, living a life of freedom on the water because I love the water.

“So when they named me captain of the Olympic team for 2016 Olympics, and I was warming up with the team, I would always just say things like ‘Okay, you guys are my crew, we're on a voyage, get the gold!’.

“I would always give out pirate commands like ‘Get on the port side, get on the starboard side’, as they are nautical terms. We would do this thing where we jump in the air to stretch and I'd say ‘Man overboard!’. So it became my name in boxing, Ginny the Pirate, and it's just kind of stuck with me.

Back on dry land, Fuchs was considered a strong favourite to qualify for Tokyo 2020 at the Americas Olympic Boxing Qualifying Event, which was supposed to take place in Buenos Aires, Argentina in March 2020.

The event was postponed until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, before disaster struck.

In June 2020, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced that she had failed a drugs test.

Her out-of-competition urine sample from February tested positive for banned letrozole metabolite and GW1516 metabolites, which carry with them a possible four-year suspension for athletes.

Thankfully for Fuchs she was cleared of any wrongdoing, after authorities ruled that she had ingested the steroids by mistake while being intimate with her partner, who was using the substances for medicinal reasons.

With that setback behind her, the USA boxer refocused on boxing, and the rearranged Americas qualifier. But a year later, the IOC Boxing Task Force cancelled the event completely as several athletes were not able to attend due to travel restrictions.

“It's like I was destined to be at the Olympics”

Qualification for the Games was decided instead by the BTF rankings, and Fuchs, having been consistently ranked in the top three at Flyweight in the world for the past Olympic cycle, secured her place in Tokyo.

With her prior experience of going to an Olympics as Team Captain in Rio, she will play a role as team mentor in Tokyo.

“It's an honour to be the vet on the USA team,” she said. “I'm the only one on the team that was on the last Olympic squad, so everybody kind of comes to me with questions because I know what to expect, and how to stay on track.

“Ever since I was a little girl, it's like I was destined to be at the Olympics. I don't see any other way. This is my life. Winning the gold. It’s everything to me.”

Following in Claressa Shields’ footsteps

Fuchs will be hoped on her quest by two-time Olympic boxing champion Claressa Shields, who is one of her closest friends.

“She's my sister right there,” beamed Fuchs. “I love her to death. She's been with me when I've gone through my struggles in my boxing and in my OCD.

“Carissa will only be the person that has seen the most dramatic change in my personality though, and just having that struggle with her has really made us grow close. I always ask her for advice with boxing because she advanced so quickly and has stayed on a great momentum.

“It's good to have someone like that in your life because I feel like many people don't don't have that.”

With no qualifier to tune up her skills before the Olympics, Fuchs showed that she hasn’t lost any of her touch at the star-studded Boxam competition in Valencia in March.

After eliminating six-time world champion Mary Kom, the American lost a close final by split decision to Svetlana Soluianova.

With Rio 2016 heartache still driving her on, and the wise council of Shields to call upon, Ginny the Pirate will feel confident that she will finally find her golden treasure at the Tokyo Olympics.

Fuchs proved herself to be the No.1 USA flyweight boxer at the 2020 Olympic Trials.