Every year, The Singapore Women’s Weekly shines a spotlight on inspiring and influential women who are shaping our world. We call them the Great Women of Our Time. This year’s list for 2022 includes Leona Hui, a former SEA Games and national boxer as well as a personal trainer and events manager.

“I think boxing is a very confrontational sport. I’m generally a peace-loving person, and not somebody who likes confrontation.”

“But when you get into the ring, it is literally adversity you’re facing,” personal trainer and former national boxer Leona Hui tells The Weekly. “So there’s the challenge of having to tackle it head-on while remaining calm. You just have to figure a way out.”

Having long been synonymous with being a male-dominated sport, boxing has picked up tremendously amongst women in recent years. And it’s not just for fitness. Within Singapore’s boxing scene, the number of female competitors stepping into the ring to trade punches has been on the rise.

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In the thick of it all is Leona. The 36-year-old, who graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2006, started her own journey in the sport a decade ago. She initiated the SG Women’s Boxing training programme in 2020, in the hope of bringing women from all walks of life and different gyms in Singapore together through their shared love of boxing.

She first realised the common issue of small handfuls of girls in individual gyms who lacked training or sparring partners. “We started out as four girls from four different gyms coming together to help each other with preparing for our fights, and it was such a great experience for us. We became firm friends, and from that, I saw the value in creating a safe space for a community to thrive and learn together.”

Leona competed at the SEA Games in 2015 and 2019.

But it didn’t come without its hurdles, with Covid-19 and the ‘circuit breaker’ period putting a spanner in the works. Then, at the stipulated start of their training programme in May 2021, strict safe distancing measures (SMMs) kicked in again and they had to shelf their plans for yet another few months.

But the positive response from participants only motivated her to push on, and her firm belief in the saying “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” forms the basis of why she believes in the importance of a community of like-minded individuals.

“What keeps me going is seeing everyone from different gyms gel as a group, helping each other out, and forming friendships from this collective experience. Then there’s the common goal of improving their skills and getting a chance to learn from each other.”

In session: The ladies of the SG Women’s Boxing programme sharpening their skills.

Her proudest achievements? That SG Women’s Boxing has grown from just four participants to a community of over 40. They also recently organised an all-women boxing tournament with close to 50 interested applicants. “This was really something I would not have imagined back when I was still actively competing. It really blew my mind!” she reflects.

On a personal level, it’s also when she sees boxers slowly gaining confidence in themselves as their skills improve that she feels a sense of pride. “There’s a quote from professional boxer Wladimir Klitschko that I really like: ‘Boxing is a kind of magic. It gives discipline to the wild. Strength to the weak. Confidence to the shy.’ And I think it sums up nicely why I hope to see more women (and people in general) participate in this sport.”

The lessons Leona got from boxing proved life-changing. “Resilience, grit, humility, courage, discipline, commitment, respect for yourself and for your opponents… the list goes on.”

You might not associate the affable personal trainer with someone who’s introverted, but she describes herself as extremely shy and anxious when she was a child. “I didn’t even dare to ask for additional sauces from the staff at fast-food restaurants. I remember feeling panicky and almost wanting to cry if I had to do so. I’m a pretty introverted person by nature.”

“Through the years, my work has trained me well enough to embrace public speaking, and it’s the constant practice that has gotten me to where I am. But it’s also equally important for me to have some space and quiet to myself because I’m constantly surrounded by people and clients.”

With her hand in several pies — she doesn’t just coach and conduct personal training sessions but is also an events manager — you’d wonder how she finds time to recharge. The self-confessed video game lover (“But having time for video games is really a luxury now”) also prefers to spend time with loved ones.

“I don’t have the traditional idea of ‘weekends’ because I usually have to work, but when I do have time on my hands, just having a meal or drinks with friends and loved ones, preferably at the beach with an ice-cold beer, makes for my ideal ‘weekend’ off.”

Outside of boxing, Leona is also the co-founder of her own events company.

But for Leona, boxing — and the aspects of it — is often intertwined with and relates to life.

“When adversity hits you in the face or when life gets you down, you have to find a way to dig deep and recover from it. Failure is always just a step towards success, and just like in boxing, we always say ‘you either win, or you learn’. The key is to, of course, to always remain humble, learn and be better every day.”

Nonetheless, she is also her own harshest critic and admits to having to continually remind herself about how far she has gotten and how much more she has to go. “Life is a journey, so I guess I constantly tell myself to switch from a ‘goal’ mindset to a ‘growth’ one and to celebrate the little wins along the way.”

And when it comes to setbacks, adaptability is key. “At any given time, things (or people) may change or plans get disrupted, so it’s important to be able to adapt, evolve and grow.”

A certain stubbornness also comes in handy. “I think in life (and in boxing), you have to be adamant enough to want to continue climbing obstacles, yet be practical enough to know your limitations.

Photography: Sam Chin
Videography: Stacey Rodrigues
Hair: Ash Loi
Makeup: Ginger Linette Leong
Location: Conrad Centennial Singapore