It’s doubtful that being described as a long shot to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics will bother Troy Garton.
Beating the odds has, after all, always just been part of the gig for the 31-year-old lightweight boxer.
Having picked up the sport late, as a means of fitness and a way to raise some money for a good cause, she wasn’t really supposed to be at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, mixing it with serious contenders.
And she sure shouldn’t have been competing in the semifinals, having ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee the day before the New Zealand team departed for the Games.
It shouldn’t have happened – but Garton has a Commonwealth Games bronze medal to prove that odds are there to beaten, and that mind can overcome matter, even matter in the form of torn ligaments.
“They originally said Troy wouldn’t make the Commonwealth Games,” Garton’s coach Terrence Batchelor says. “I said ‘well, what percentage are you giving her?’”
The answer they gave – they being NZ Boxing officials – was 99.9 per cent against such an inexperienced boxer being good enough, quickly enough to qualify for the event.
“I said at least there is a 0.1 percent chance then,” chuckles Batchelor. “And she proved them wrong and did it. Now her goal is the Olympics.”
Is she a long shot? Garton doesn’t believe so – although the task does appear to have become tougher, with the traditional route of qualifying by winning the Oceania championships replaced by a merged Asia-Oceania qualifying tournament to be held in January next year.
It’s likely the top four at that tournament will earn direct entry to the Games, with those who exit before the semifinals required to qualify via a global second chance tournament.
“I’m a better boxer than I was at the Comm Games,” Garton says matter-of-factly.
She should be, having dedicated herself to the sport full-time since recovering from the surgery required to fix her knee. Garton had been working as reception manager at Les Mills Gym in central Auckland, and has a degree in fashion and apparel design.
“She has put her whole life into it,” says Batchelor. “Because she has dedicated herself full-time to the sport, her skill has gone through the roof. Her international experience is right up there now, too.”
While her results don’t yet show it – she was beaten in the first round by the eventual champion at last year’s world championships, and lost another close contest in her most recent outing in Thailand – Garton is steadily closing the gap between herself and the sport’s elite.
“Her last fight in Thailand at the King’s Cup – I know everyone says this – but it was such a rip-off,” says Batchelor. “She was the boxer this time.”
He believes Garton’s Uzbekistani opponent won the contest on reputation, rather than performance.
“Troy out-boxed her. At the end of the day it was a split decision loss, but she is understanding the game a lot better now. She’s a lot more educated,” he says.
“It is a matter of time until she is going to be dominating.”
Given the canvas it is being melded onto, Garton’s increasing skill and knowledge should indeed make her a formidable proposition.
While not exactly typical, Garton’s path to boxing via a corporate charity match has become increasingly common.
In 2014, at the age of 26, she signed up for Les Mills’ Ringside corporate boxing programme, which involves an extended training regime followed by a bout against a fellow novice.
The idea of competing at Olympic and Commonwealth Games couldn’t have been further from her mind at the time.
“I saw the training programme and went ‘oh this is something different, maybe I’ll get skinny’,” she says.
“But I wasn’t actually sure I was going to get into the ring.”
It was the shock death of Les Mills trainer Joe Houpapa – who fell and suffered a fatal head injury while out jogging with his children – that galvinised Garton’s resolve.
“Instead of raising money for the charity I could raise money for [Houpapa’s] family. So that gave me something to make me get in the ring. And then I loved it – and never turned back.”
Despite her now growing experience, she still suffers pre-fight nerves.
“It is that ‘fight or flight’ thing that you naturally do in your body. It is your body going ‘are you sure you want to get there, somebody is going to hurt you?’”
A rigid routine that involves setting out her uniform and boots in exactly the same way before every fight helps her control those impulses.
“That gets me into a good routine. Then when I start warming up, I’m thinking only about the warm-up. Before you know it the adrenaline kicks in, all the nerves are gone and you are ready to go. And afterwards you go ‘f*** I want to do that again!’
“I’d get back in the ring straight away if I could – and yet an hour before I’ve been going ‘shit these nerves are bloody annoying’.”
Garton’s mental toughness was never more notable that at the Commonwealth Games, when she defied medical advice to produce one of the most remarkable performances in New Zealand sport.
“The power of the mind has such an influence. I had convinced myself I was fine,” she says of her decision to box with an injury that typically rules athletes out of competition for at least six months.
Such is the nature of ACL injuries, that Garton wasn’t overly concerned when she felt something go ‘ping’ as she attempted to change direction in her final sparring session before departing for the Gold Coast.
“Because I’d never injured myself before, I actually didn’t think anything of it,” she says.
The session was cut short, but Garton assured her trainers she didn’t require any treatment for the minor tweak. That evening when she sat down she felt a small ache, so she elevated the leg and iced her knee.
“Instead of settling down it just went huge. I’d never been in that kind of pain before.”
She couldn’t even walk up a set of stairs.
The swelling decreased overnight, so she departed for the Games still hoping the injury was minor. Those hopes were dashed when she checked in at the Games Village and arranged to see the team physio, who quickly referred her to the team doctor, who sent her straight for an MRI.
The results came back that night confirming the worst possible news.
“Being doctors they recommended that I shouldn’t fight. But because it was nothing to do with the heart, not life threatening, they said they won’t stop you.”
Garton was in tears, thinking: “‘I’ve done so much to get here and it’s all ruined’.”
But she pulled herself together and resolved to do the unthinkable – step into the ring with an injury so severe she would have barely any lateral movement.
“What did I have to lose – nothing?”
That might be an understandable approach from a table tennis player, perhaps less so in a sport in which an ability to move fluently is vital to avoid being repeatedly punched in the face.
Garton, though, was not about to entertain any doubts. And then she received a small slice of fortune in the shape of a first round bye, giving her two more precious days to work on getting her knee in the best possible shape.
“I spent every day at the physio icing it and rehabbing it as best we could,” Garton says.
Somehow she pulled off a victory over Botswana’s Aratwa Kasemang, dominating the second and third rounds after a nervy beginning.
“Winning it I was like ‘oh my gosh’. I’d done more than I’d ever expected.”
But for her semifinal against Australia’s Anja Stridsman just two days later, the game was well and truly up.
Her knee seized up during the introductions, and affected her badly throughout the fight. Unsurprisingly, she lost every round on all five judges’ scorecards.
“But we got through it. My attitude was that you never know, you never know what happens in a fight, so just stay in there and see what happens.”
When the fight was over, the reality of what she’d done kicked in.
“It wasn’t until afterwards I went ‘shit I can’t believe I went through that’. I’d convinced myself it was okay and I dealt with it. But as soon as I was out of the competition I was like ‘oh it is sore now – I think I have done something to my knee’.”
Just five months after reconstructive surgery – again bucking conventional medical wisdom – she was back in the ring defending her national title, setting out on a path that she hopes will lead to Tokyo.
Her experience on the Gold Coast, she says, put her in good stead for that journey.
“Boxing is a tough sport, one of the hardest sports, I think,” she says. “So it’s not bad to practise a little bit of toughness.”