The world no 1 is locked and ready to win an Olympic medal as the Chinese Taipei boxer embarks on the biggest fight of her life. Here's what she had to say in an interview last year with Tokyo 2020.
From the moment CHEN Nien-Chin put on her boxing gloves at age 14, there was only one thing in her mind: "to finish what she started.”
So when she moved to Hsinchu City on her own and found that she was the only girl in the team - a rare thing in her nation back then - Chen soldiered on.
It was not easy of course. There were many times that she would cry or run away from training when she received taunts from seniors only for the coach to reprimand them to bring her back. But instead of quitting, she wouldn't back down.
“I have a saying that ‘No matter what, I'm going to do something today and shut all of you up’. It doesn't matter if they scold me, it doesn't matter if I don't do as well as they do, but I will just practise silently like this,” the athlete who is currently 23-years-old said.
Those times sharpened her conviction to come out of it tougher.
“I think that you have to be stronger to train with the boys,” said the Halien county native, who also hails from the Amis and Bunun people, two of Chinese Taipei's indigenous tribes.
As the only girl, she took advantage of sparring with male athletes, who had more experience, which honed her fighting edge and emotional resilience needed to survive in the sport.
“[The] good thing about training with the boys is that they can make you stronger very quickly. The other good thing is that they can very quickly [help] you improve your technique and tactics. In the process of playing against boys, you may cry, you may experience too much pressure, you may just collapse."
“[But] it's because I've been practising with the boys that I've slowly started to be able to, even if I don't do something well today, grit my teeth and keep going through it.”
Another challenge – moving weight categories
Just a few years after taking up the sport, Chen's talent had become undeniable.
In the early part of her career, she fought in the 75kg class and had considerable success which helped her gain the respect of her seniors and earn her rightful place. She won a silver at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing then bronze at the 2016 World Championships and participated at her first Olympics in Rio at age 19.
But another challenge was yet to come.
In 2018 at world no 8 - and at what she thought was the height of her career - her coach asked her to change weight classes and drop down to -69kg.
“At that time, the coach said to me that you are now in a position where there are two new weight classes for girls because of the international demand for gender equality.”
“When he told me that I was going to play 69kg, I just didn't accept it very well. I said: ‘I am now ranked eighth in the world at 75kg, and I am now two years away, and about two or three years’ time [I will be able to go] to fight in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. I am not going to start from zero - I am going to grab the Olympics.”
2014 Getty Images
But as a Catholic, Chen prayed for a sign.
"From the beginning I had a voice telling me to just do it, to just accept a wonderful gift from God, so I told myself right [I'll do it] then and there."
“After understanding [my coach], after understanding my feelings, I also just started to work hard.”
However, dropping down weight took on more than just changing the mindset. Chen had to readjust everything else and basically start from zero again.
"Because [changing to] 75kg to 69kg is very difficult, [you have to consider] for example your body composition, then your technical tactics and your speed - those are actually completely different, you have to re-adjust. That's the most difficult process."
“I think it's [also] very much more of a technical and also tactical change. Maybe the speed is going to get faster [or] maybe your agility for boxing. They say every weight class has a different intensity, and the intensity of the game is different. [At first] I had to adapt to the 75kg, [so now] I'm going to have to adapt to this 69kg intensity.”
Chen also had to spar differently – albeit still with male athletes as she had no female counterpart to spar with in Chinese Taipei.
“When I have to go [train], I practise with maybe lighter faster guys and then again with maybe heavier guys.”
In just a few months after changing weight classes, the move down to 69kg proved to be the correct one. In 2018, Chen won gold at the Ulaanbaatar Box Cup, World University Boxing Championship, and the AIBA Women's World Boxing Championships and secured world no 1 status in her weight class.
In March 2020, she booked her ticket to Tokyo 2020 after advancing in the semi-finals at the Asia and Oceania Olympic qualifier in Jordan last year. And to top it all, she was named best female athlete in the country's Sports Elite awards.
Family as cheerleaders
Chen's accolades as a female boxer has earned her the title 'Boxing queen' - a nickname that was first given to her by an elder friend when she was younger and later on adopted by the Chinese Taipei's local media. But even with this recognition and all the accomplishments she has reached, she acknowledges that prejudices against females still exist in the sport of boxing.
“Many outsiders would think that boxing is so violent, or boxing is not for girls - how can your parents let you practise boxing and let their kids get beaten up like this,” Chen explained.
"It's strange because my parents have been supportive of me practising sports as [a person] of indigenous [background] and because I've been good in sports since I was a kid and they could see that."
Chen says it's her family's support that helped her commit to the sports.
“My parents are motivational. My parents told me that 'if you choose this path today and you fail or what happens, we don't care, I will only tell you that you choose your own path and you have to finish it'.”
“My dad is kind of a spiritual support and a spiritual mentor in my life.”
Her dad, who didn’t know at first read learned how to and use a computer and smartphone just so he could watch her compete, while also giving her some fighting pointers.
“He can [now] watch my match from morning to evening, he can watch it all the time so he can now tell me, “Mei Mei (little sister), your footwork is not so good today, and how is it?"
"The support of my family is a big support for me, so even though other people think that girls are no good at boxing, as long as my family supports me, I'm good,” she added.
Going for gold
With a solid support behind her, Chen is now locked and ready to take on the Olympic stage for a second time. It will also be her chance to redeem herself after Rio where she failed to advance after her first bout. But Chen knows that for the upcoming Olympics, she must rely on her strength as a multi-faceted fighter.
“I think I would kind of describe myself as a fighter because I have a more diverse style, I'm not very single-minded."
"I face different players, I will use different styles."
Now all her preparations are underway to show that on that Olympic ring, she is more than just an average boxer.
"You have to put all your energy in your training, planning and sharpening your skills. You have to think well just to prepare yourself for this."
“You can't look at yourself as an average player. You can't think of yourself as a normal player. As a normal player, maybe I can go and play or do something during the holidays, but [for the Olympics] you have to spend five months left wisely [in preparation]."
No matter how hard it is, it is an opportunity that Chen will not pass it up because she is setting her sights on one thing: a gold medal.
"The Olympic dream is something that I think about every day - every single day you want to be an Olympic gold medallist.”
From overcoming verbal bullying and gender stereotypes to changing weight classes, Chen has accomplished so much as a female boxer. But what else could be in store for her in Tokyo 2020?
The athlete might have just summed it herself:
"You have to think of yourself as the Boxing queen, because if you keep thinking that you are, you will be Boxing queen one day. For me today it is an inspiration, it is telling myself, I am the gold medal player, I am a queen."
Catch Chen in action along with other great female boxers from 24 July to 8 August at the Kokugikan Arena.
This feature was first published on 19 March 2021.