St. Davids boxer Mckenzie Wright arrived home from the Pan American Games on the weekend with a bronze medal and a promise to herself that she will do everything possible to land a spot on Canada’s 2024 Olympic team.
When she left for South America more than five weeks ago, her goal was to finish in the top two at the Pan Am Games in Santiago, Chile, and automatically guarantee herself a spot in the Paris Olympics next summer.
She fell just short of her quest, losing in the semifinal to a U.S. fighter, but making her mark for Canada in just her second appearance on the international stage.
“I was so close at these Games that I have to keep going. I’ve evolved so much in such a short time,” she told The Lake Report. “I believe I can qualify.”
“Right now, the goal is Paris. I have no other sights right now, it’s only Paris.”
Wright, 33, who graduated in nursing from Niagara College last spring, feels ready to compete at the top international level.
“I have the boxing skills, now I just have some fine-tune adjustments to make,” she said.
“The only way for me to keep improving is to keep competing at the highest level in the most challenging fights.”
“If I can keep gaining this international experience I will continue to thrive.”
She noted her 50-kilogram division had the largest pool of athletes, so to come away with bronze was a major accomplishment.
“In this game, anything can happen. I feel like I was a bit of a dark horse and may not have been expected to make it too far” because of her limited international exposure.
And to come home with a medal “was a great milestone for me.”
There are still two more international tournaments at which she could qualify for Paris, starting with one in Italy in March. The top four fighters there will earn Olympic berths.
But before that happens, she must retain her spot on the Canadian team.
“It’s pretty cut-throat. Even though I won my spot on the national team only in June and with my great showing at the Games, I already have to defend the title in five weeks.”
That tournament is in December in Montreal.
“These are ‘Olympic team qualifiers,’ meaning they are used to choose our Olympic team,” she said.
The Canadian championships aren’t until next year, but they wouldn’t be Olympic qualifiers, she said.
So, she’s looking forward to Montreal.
“I feel like I have evolved so much in the last five weeks that I’m excited to bring this elevated version of myself to the ring.”
“It gives me good, competitive ring time, which only keeps preparing me for the world qualifiers.”
She still has her nursing “board exam” to write but expects to put that career on hold while she pursues her Olympic dream.
So, for now, her life will focus on training and preparation.
Prior to the Pan Ams, Canada’s boxers spent three weeks working out at altitude in Bogota, Colombia.
“Training with what felt like no oxygen at high intensity was tough but what I found even more challenging was the mental game,” she said.
Every other day there were sparring matches “that felt like full-out fights” against world medallists and past Olympians.
“It was a huge learning curve and there are times where you feel pretty discouraged, but pushing past those moments and taking the lessons was the most valuable experience I could ask for. I learned so much.”
All those challenges were worth it to have the chance to fight for Canada at the Pan Ams, she said.
And when she got to Santiago, she made sure to absorb and enjoy the experience of representing her country.
Among her cherished memories: Waiting in the tunnel preparing to enter the arena.
“I’ve had close to 100 ring-walks. It’s always a little nerve-wracking but nothing could have prepared me for this one,” she said.
“I’m standing there with my coaches and the usher to walk me to the ring reciting my affirmations, trying to stay focused.”
“Then, the stadium starts roaring for the fighters to come out, the lights are going, there’s smoke, the announcer is speaking in Spanish, music is blasting.”
The excitement helped calm her nerves so she could enjoy the moment.
“I’m giving my team high-fives all around because I’m ready. As soon as I hear my name and walk out to the crowd I couldn’t help but crack the biggest smile,” she recalled.
“It was the most excited and most alive I’ve ever felt in my whole life.”
Her parents Judy and Dow Wright travelled to Chile for the Games.
Wright said she felt lucky to have them on hand to share the experience.
“They understood that I could be out in the first round so I was really happy to have gotten three fights for them to come to, instead of one and done,” she said.
“They really got into cheering for the whole team.”
Wright also heard from a lot of people back home who followed her progress.
“The support from back home is huge. I was away for almost six weeks so to hear from home just makes me feel like people care and it’s exciting that they’re on this journey with me,” she said.
“I’m representing Canada, but I also feel I’m representing Niagara, so for everyone to send their messages was really encouraging.”
“All of Niagara and NOTL believed in me and fundraised for this opportunity so I’m really proud that I could have a medal to show for it.”
As a woman competing in a tough sport, she has some advice for other female athletes, whether in boxing or other pursuits.
“Take advantage of every opportunity. Women’s sports have come so far in the last 10 years, especially in boxing. So there are a ton of opportunities I never had that are helping girls to develop themselves,” she said.
“Sparring camps, inter-club sparring, every tournament – be as busy as possible and it’ll help you make connections in the sport and also make friends.”