‘Keep pushing’: boxer Tina Rahimi went from casual classes to Commonwealth Games in five years

Five years ago, Tina Rahimi wanted to get a little fitter. Maybe lose a bit of weight. So she convinced one of her gym mates to sign up for a boxing class with her.

“I thought, you know, boxing will be fun. We’ll try it out,” she says.

They joined a female-only boxfit-style class in Sydney’s Greenacre, and were quickly motivated. They were both doing pretty well. Rahimi looked forward to every single session. In a matter of weeks, she wanted more. Something about the sport had drawn her in. So she convinced her friend again to move up a class, to the mixed adults. To sparring.

“And I just – I just fell in love. I didn’t even know you could compete. I thought it was only professionals. ‘Cause I wasn’t really into boxing before, I only knew Mike Tyson. I didn’t know there was, like, actual local competitions. Until I went to one and I was like ‘Oh my God, this is so exciting’.”

Six months after her first boxercise class, Rahimi stepped into the ring. After that first bout, “I was, like, ‘I wanna fight. I wanna fight.’ I could not wait to jump back in.”

Now, Rahimi is considered one of the best female boxers in the country. In a matter of days, she will represent Australia in the 57kg female category at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

When Guardian Australia video-calls Rahimi, it’s 9am in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where she and the rest of the boxing team are in training camp before the Games. Training tapers off before competition, but she has done two hours of sprints today already. In another two hours, there’s sparring.

Sitting inside a bare, beige room, Rahimi is all smiles . There is little of the pugilist in her face – she could be mistaken for a YouTube makeup artist; perfect brows, long lashes and glossy manicured nails slide into view as she gesticulates – which is often. She speaks rapidly, and with warmth, frequently splicing sentences with a rhetorical “you know what I mean?”

Before boxing, Rahimi had done the odd bit of school sports. If there was an athletics carnival, she’d have a go (“I wasn’t really great”) and for a couple of years in her early teens she played football. Her dad, who drove her to high school matches, had always been athletic – a champion wrestler in Australia and Europe in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, “he’s like: ‘You have my blood in you. Make me proud.’”

When Rahimi’s placement on the team was announced, making her the first female Muslim boxer to represent Australia, media requests flooded in. It was overwhelming, she says.

“I was like, ‘Oh wow. This is a lot.’ I just feel like I’m a normal person, you know what I mean?”

“I know that because I look different and I dress differently, it’s going to get a bit more attention. I mean, that’s why it kind of blew up.”

But she hopes her success can show others that how you look or dress doesn’t matter. “It all comes down to how hard you work, how disciplined you are, and how bad you want something.”

And Rahimi wants it bad.

Before Belfast, she was training three times a day, six days a week. Although the schedule is lighter now, she is far from home and it is still gruelling, she says.

“Like, I’ll be really honest: I’ve cried a few times here.”

“It was actually yesterday. I had a sparring session and I didn’t feel like I did the best that I could. It gets like that. Sometimes you’re tired. I walked out of the sparring session, and I was like ‘oh, I don’t feel like I did that great’, and I just sat down and just cried.

“Everyone sees all the pain that you go through. Everyone can kind of relate. But at the end of the day, it’s that battle that you have within yourself.”

She knows the women she will be competing against want to win just as much as she does. She knows they’re training their arses off for that gold medal. She knows the coming fights will be like a war, she says. “Every single fight.”

“You’ve always got to … feed yourself positive thoughts,” she says. “Yeah, you can cry here and there. You know, let it out. But you’ve gotta not let that get into your head. And just keep going. Keep pushing.”

Now, just days away from the Games, Rahimi says she is feeling strong. She feels she has a “natural strength”, and has been told so by male boxers she’s sparred against. So she’s focussing on perfecting her technique. Her jab is good, she says. It’s the best punch you can throw, in her opinion. Her right cross is good too, “when it lands”. It is the discipline of perpetual improvement, of learning, she says, that first drew her to the sport and, while “it’s so hard”, it keeps her going too. Even in the moments she hates it, she says, afterwards she feels amazing. “I just feel like I’ve accomplished something.”

“I just love it! I just love the feeling,” she says, searching through a smile for the words to explain.

“It’s that I know that I can push myself more than you can push yourself. I won’t give up. You know what I mean? I know that I’ll be the last person to give up in there.”