Apart from her own personal targets competing in the women’s 75 kg middleweight category at the 2023 Women’s Boxing World championships, Caitlin Parker has an additional responsibility. The 26-year old is also the team captain of the Australian boxing contingent here in New Delhi.
Although it doesn’t come with special privileges, the role is considered an important one. ”As team captain I’m supposed to help coordinate between athletes and coaches. But more importantly, I have to make sure that everyone is right and ready to go. I’m sort of the one who tries to see that everyone is in the right spirit and that team has that all-around camaraderie between them,” she says.
It’s usually the most experienced member of the team appointed to that position. In this Australian team that individual is undoubtedly Caitlin, who has two medals at the Commonwealth Games and is the only member of her side to have competed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“I’ve been on the Australian team since I was 15. I have been in many multi-sport competitions including the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. The squad we are with is a very young and inexperienced one with many players competing in their first World Championships. I’ve had the chance in the past to gain a lot of experience. So I feel I am in a position to give advice for some of our younger boxers,” says Caitlin.
If Caitlin appreciates the role expected of her, it’s because she’s benefitted from the same mentorship from senior figures in the past.
“There weren’t a lot of female boxers when I started out. So we looked to many of the male athletes around us. We tried to follow how they acted and took on fighting the best of the best internationally. It was very empowering for me when I was just 15,” she says.
It wasn’t just boxers who she looked up to. One of her mentors at the start of her career was Australian cricket great Adam Gilchrist.
The two first met in 2015 when Caitlin, then a 15-year-old girl, who had just competed at the Youth Olympics, won a scholarship awarded by the Sports Australia Hall of Fame.
“As part of the scholarship, Adam Gilchrist, who was a member of the Hall of Fame was assigned to be a mentor to me. He was only supposed to work with me for a year but we have stayed in touch ever since,” says Caitlin.
At first though Caitlin was overwhelmed at just meeting Gilchrist, part of three World Cup-winning squads and a player acknowledged to have revolutionised the role of wicketkeeper-batter. She’d grown up in a working-class but cricket-mad household in Perth. “One of my fondest childhood memory is of my dad putting up a net and playing backyard cricket with me and my brother in the summer,“ she says.
Indeed Caitlin originally wore cricketing gloves before swapping them for boxing ones. “We didn’t have a girl’s team so I was the only girl in a team named Thornely Cricket Club. I was part of the team for two years but I didn’t really get to do much so I eventually I started boxing,“ she says.
Cricket was still her father, Craig’s, first love though. “When I found out Gilchrist was my mentor, I went straight to my dad. He was over the moon. He had a copy of Adam Gilchrist’s autobiography and I was able to get that signed,” she says.
She didn’t get any other memorabilia from the Australian cricketer but something far more invaluable -- the chance to learn from one of the greats of the sport.
“He was an amazing person to ask advice from. We came from very different sports backgrounds but we experience a lot of the same emotions in the game. It was amazing to pick the brain of one of the legends not just of Australian sport but world sport,” she says.
Despite his accomplishments, Caitlin remembers how Gilchrist put her at ease. “He was just so humble and easygoing. The first time, he invited me and my mom to his house,“ she recalls.
Despite Gilchrist’s efforts, Caitlin admits being overawed at first. “I asked a lot of dumb things. There were times he was talking and I’m just sitting thinking ‘Oh my god! Adam Gilchrist is talking to me’. I remember later writing down what he told me but thinking I’m getting advice from Gilly,“ she says.
They’d meet other times too and Caitlin says she always came out learning more. “I had so many questions. Specifically, how do you deal with the crowd or the nerves of coming out on the field. I asked him about how to handle it if, say, someone was trying to intimidate me. He told me how to stay away from people who want to stir things and to keep my focus. How to stay calm and collected in the middle of the ring. Most importantly, he said ‘do your talking with your punches’. That’s something I still remember,“ she says.
When she looks back, Caitlin is grateful to Gilchrist for taking the time to help a young girl at the start of her career. “Cricket was, of course, a very big sport and he was one of the biggest names. Women’s boxing was nothing but he never let me feel that I or my sport didn’t matter or that he was the big guy. He just helped me in my journey and gave advice,” she says.
Although the mentorship program was only supposed to last for a year, the two have stayed in touch since. “We don’t meet regularly anymore but he still calls me or messages me before I fight or straight after. He tries to pick me up if I get a bit down. He’s always watching out for me. He always wishes me luck. He’ll always say how he’s following me on the news and expecting great things from me,“ she says.
While she once took Gilchrist’s advice on authority, Caitlin says with experience she’s now able to see where it came from.
“Sometime back one young boxer asked me if I get nervous before a bout. And I said ‘Absolutely’. I’ve got over a hundred bouts and I’m still nervous every time. It’s not a bad thing to be nervous. Being nervous means you care about what’s going on. What matters is what you do with your nervousness and how you channelise it into your performance. This was something he (Gilchrist) told me once as well. Now I am living it and I can understand where he was coming from,” she says.
With time, Caitlin’s found herself in the same role Gilchrist was nearly a decade back. “As I’ve got more experienced, I’ve tried to help young sportspersons, especially young girls and boxers with what I’ve learned. I’m always asking them if they need help. That’s what I love doing now,” she says.
This isn’t to say she doesn’t have any targets for herself. “I still have some major career goals. I’m the last boxer to beat (Tokyo Olympic gold medalist) Lauren Price. I didn’t have the best result at the Games (She lost in the first round) but I’m determined to make history in Paris. My first goal is to qualify for the Games and the next is to become the first Australian woman boxer to win a medal, “ she says.
But as Caitlin explains personal success isn’t just enough for its own sake. She eventually hopes to mentor another young boxer the way Gilchrist helped her.
“I think to be a mentor in that program, you have to be inducted into the Sports Australia Hall of Fame. That’s another life goal. The guys in that hall of fame are the greatest figures in Australian sport. What a thing that would be,” she says.
Indeed, if she says she wants to emulate Gilchrist albeit in her choice of sport, it’s not because of his stardom but what he’s done with it. “I don’t do boxing to be a star but because I love it. If I attain the kind of status someone like Adam Gilchrist has it’s because I want to be looked up to as a role model as he has. I’d love to be that sort of figure, especially for women boxers who need strong role model,” she says.