Resilient Athletes

After lockdown, a boxing pioneer rebuilds in China


This ongoing photo series examines the ways the coronavirus pandemic has upended and reshaped athletes' lives.

Michele Aboro last saw her wife, Masca, and daughter, Blue, on Jan. 23, when they left Shanghai -- where the six-time boxing world champion runs a gym -- to celebrate Lunar New Year in her family's hometown near Shenzhen, China. Aboro stayed behind. Within days, a neighbor there was diagnosed with COVID-19, and mother and daughter evacuated to Hong Kong. Aboro closed her gym, not knowing how long the lockdown would last.

After a month, Aboro Academy reopened with half the staff, a raft of regulations and an abundance of caution. As the world reels from the coronavirus pandemic, Aboro rebuilds her gym, one class at a time.

Aboro's two dogs, Pi and Faye Faye, keep her company while her wife and daughter remain in Hong Kong. "It's the longest time I've ever been away from them," she says.
In Chinese cities, temperature checks are mandatory before people can enter or exit a building or business.
Aboro, 52, grew up in London. She first visited Shanghai, which she describes as "New York on steroids," in 2009. The former undefeated boxing world champion couldn't find anywhere to train, which sparked the idea of opening a gym of her own.
Each week, the gym petitions the government for permission to maintain or expand its activities. When it first reopened in mid-March, only seven people were allowed inside at a time and only for personal training or open gym time. Masks were required.
The gym takes hygiene very seriously. Its future depends on it. "We wash the gym continuously. After each class we sterilize," Aboro says. "We need to be very careful because if somebody got sick in the gym, that would be the end of us."
Cleaning has become an integral part of the Aboro Academy staff's daily ritual.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Aboro Academy boasted 270 or so clients, including about a dozen boxers who perform at local amateur shows and a handful of professionals. Since the gym reopened, more than 200 of them have returned.
Aboro started free classes for kids four years ago, hoping that boxing would give them an outlet for their energy. "It's not just people who don't have money who need help," she says. "Some kids that have a lot need more help because they have an ayi [nanny] who does everything for them, and they're stuck on the iPad." With kids still under lockdown, the academy hosts online classes for them four days a week.
“We need to be very careful because if somebody got sick in the gym that would be the end of us.”
To keep the gym afloat, Aboro cut salaries, reduced the academy's space and let nine of her 18 employees go. She works from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day to make up the difference. But she feels fortunate to still have her gym. "Businesses like ours live on a month-to-month basis," she says. "We don't have a pot of gold for moments like this."
About a month after reopening, the gym holds four classes a day in small groups of six to eight, without masks. Sparring and any sort of free physical contact are still prohibited.
Aboro video chats with her family once or twice a day. Blue, who recently turned 3, is too young to understand what's going on, but Aboro says she knows enough to not touch things. Aboro has no idea when Blue and Masca can return to Shanghai, but she is hoping for a June reunion. "It still hasn't gotten into [Blue's] head that I'm here and she's there," she says. "The other day, we were doing a video chat, and I walked into her bedroom, and I saw her little face go, like, 'That's my bedroom!'"
Women in England were banned from boxing until 1996, so Aboro left London to pursue a kickboxing career in the Netherlands before becoming a professional boxer in Germany. There, she trained at the same gym as the Klitschko brothers and Gennadiy Golovkin.
Demand is high at the gym, especially for sessions about mindfulness and wellness. "People will look to increase that in their lives," Aboro says. "Classes are packed. There's a waiting list. We have to keep it under control, or we'll be closed down."
As Shanghai slowly returns to normal life, Aboro, a breast cancer survivor, offered some perspective: "When you go through chemotherapy and radiation, at the end, you're like, 'Wow, I could have died. I'm still here.' I hope people take that out of the pandemic and put it to good use."
Written by Elaine Teng