What defines true fighting spirit? Who better to ask than four incredibly inspiring female athletes who’ve dedicated their lives to fighting battles, calling out prejudice and smashing stereotypes – both inside and outside their respective sports. Nike athletes Ramla Ali, Zeina Nassar, Yasemin Adar and Irem Yaman are women who aren’t afraid to dream big.
Joining the likes of Simone Biles and Serena Williams, as Nike athletes they’ve seen their platform for achieving their dreams – and inspiring others across the globe – grow.
Teaming up with Nike, Refinery29 sat down with these four powerful women to chat ambition, resolve and how to inspire the next generation of female sporting stars. From never giving up to being your own biggest hero, read on for four key life lessons from women who embody true fighting spirit and are here to give you some tips on how to tackle life like a champion.
Ramla Ali, 29, Featherweight Boxer
Life lesson: The Power of Small Wins
Challenges have shaped boxer Ramla Ali’s life from the start: fleeing war-torn Somalia as a child, being teased at school for being overweight and then boxing in secret, afraid of what her strict family would think of her passion. On her way to becoming a national champion, and the first Muslim woman to win an English boxing title, Ramla’s savoured each of her wins, big and small.
"It’s really important to break down your goals into small segments and try and win each one," she explains, describing how each triumph and its feelgood factor has pushed her towards achieving larger goals. "I feel like those small wins are just so powerful." And it’s a lesson she believes applies to life outside the ring.
Break down your goals into small segments and try and win each one.
Ramla won gold at a tournament in Denmark last year but says it was a phone call with her mum afterwards – the first they’d had about boxing – that left her feeling on top of the world: "You could hear how proud she was." Ramla’s mum had initially been against her boxing, believing it immodest for her Muslim daughter to be fighting and showing skin, so Ramla credits this as a major win.
As if challenging stereotypes and winning titles wasn’t enough, Ramla took on the daunting task of helping to launch the Somali Boxing Federation last year – imperative for her dream to represent her birth country at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. "It was a huge, huge step for not only myself, but for Somali women... A man didn’t start the boxing federation, a woman did."
She credits boxing with giving her the strength to feel comfortable in her own skin: "Before boxing I looked at my background, upbringing, how I was being treated in school and I thought less of myself. Boxing gave me the strength to be comfortable with everything."
Zeina Nassar, 21, Boxer
Life Lesson: Be Your Own Hero
"I always feel like I have to prove myself twice as much," declares German boxer Zeina Nassar. "Firstly because I’m a woman and then of course, I wear a hijab." She admits she used to feel reduced to her appearance and religion, finding the lack of conversation around her athletic achievements frustrating. "I did move on from that... I’m proving them wrong by showing what I can do. The pressure is still there but I stay true to myself, and meanwhile I got pretty good at it." A pretty modest statement from the five-time consecutive Berlin boxing champion and German national champion.
I’m proving them wrong by showing what I can do.
Talented, fast and powerful, Zeina was a natural fighter but as a practising Muslim wishing to wear a hijab in the ring, she had another battle to overcome first. Alongside her coach, a teenage Zeina successfully fought for provisions to be changed in Germany so that women wearing a hijab could compete in the ring. Not one to stand around and wait to be saved, Zeina became her own real life superhero. Up next for her is tackling European regulations and eventually, her aim is to compete at the Olympics.
Patience, self-confidence, discipline, concentration, respect. The list of skills and lessons learned from boxing which spill over to her personal life is seemingly endless, says Zeina. "I can defend myself, I can clear my head, I recognise my boundaries... I respect my opponent no matter who they are and I also respect myself. I could name so many things, everything I learn in boxing is applicable in daily life. I set my goals and I fight for them, in boxing and in life."
Yasemin Adar, 27, Freestyle Wrestler
Life Lesson: No Is Not An Option
Not taking no for an answer is something Turkish wrestler Yasemin Adar has been practising for many years. Despite having her talent discovered at the age of 20 by former Olympic wrestler Aslan Seyhanlı, Yasemin’s road to glory hasn’t always been straightforward.
Yasemin was initially forced to hide away while training. Male-female physical interaction – she trained with a male coach – and appearing in a training suit in front of her club was perceived as 'inappropriate'.
She changed her club and location three times to be able to continue practising her sport.
"People think that wrestling is only for men," explains Yasemin, whose frustration at this ingrained idea only drove her more passionately towards defying her critics and challenging societal expectations. She was determined not to take no as an option.
Don’t ever leave the path you believe in.
"At first, I wrestled because I wanted to change the vision of people towards women wrestling in Turkey. But now, I wrestle because I believe that I am a role model for younger girls. The more that I succeed, the more they will believe in themselves."
Showing that if you want something badly enough, you damn well get out there and get it, Yasemin has racked up multiple gold medals and is currently European champion in her weight division. Proving her detractors wrong, Yasemin made history in Paris in 2017 when she became Turkey’s first women’s freestyle wrestling world champion. She says it was the most memorable event, so far, of both her career and personal life. It was also memorable as it’s when her fiancé proposed to her on the mat after the fight.
"Despite all the challenges and despair, believe in yourself," she urges. "Don’t ever leave the path you believe in. People will try to deter you from your passion, shut your ears and walk down that path."
Irem Yaman, 23, Taekwondo
Life Lesson: Quitters Never Win
As far as monikers go, the 'gold hunter' isn’t a bad one to have. It’s pretty cool isn’t it? Well, that’s what Turkish taekwondo star and world champion Irem Yaman is also known as.
Aged just 23 and with 30 gold medals under her belt, it would be easy to assume Irem has breezed through the ranks, sweeping up wins, but behind those achievements lies a fascinating detail that illustrates just how much belief she had in her dreams. For the first 10 years of her career, she didn’t win a single tournament. She says this made her face her fear of losing and how to deal with pressure: "[It] is a part of this journey. If you can’t control yourself under pressure, your talent or how much you work actually doesn’t matter that much."
After convincing myself that I can win, I don’t need anybody or anything else to convince me.
She suggests flipping the tables when faced with obstacles and barriers; instead of seeing reasons to quit, see them as opportunities to progress. "Do not ever give up," she says earnestly. "If it’s not happening right now, it is because it is going to happen better in the future." The important part, she stresses, is that although you might not have control over the difficulties you’ll face, you can control how you react to them: "Every one of those obstacles is an opportunity, but you will only realise this once you decide not to quit."
Irem describes how, when her competitors are warming up before a match, she’ll go into a corner and talk to herself. "I think the closest friend and biggest enemy of a person is the same: themselves. I believe the way that you behave and talk to yourself affects your actions directly." Pep talk done, she’s ready to go. "After convincing myself that I can win, I don’t need anybody or anything else to convince me."
Winning more medals, more titles and working towards the next Olympic Games in Tokyo, are all chalked up on these ladies' to-do lists in 2019, but there’s an even bigger legacy that they are hoping to leave behind. To inspire women and young girls, both in sport and in wider society. As they lace up their trainers and head to practice, see their victories splashed across the TV and have their names engraved on medals, each of these four inspiring athletes is fighting taboos and cultural expectations, and paving the way for future generations. Yasemin powerfully sums it up: "If a woman believes in herself, if she wants to accomplish something, nothing on this earth can stop her."