West Belfast boxer overcomes battle with depression to become Ulster champion

A boxer from West Belfast has revealed how she overcame depression and lost more than four stones to become Ulster Elite champion.

Nicole Meli capped off a remarkable comeback by winning her 54kg final at the Girdwood Community Hub last Thursday night.

What makes her achievement even more significant is that she only returned to boxing after a six-year hiatus from the sport.

It was in 2015 that Nicole “fell in love” with boxing, hanging up the gloves to focus on training and helping other young fighters at her amateur club, Immaculata BC.

“I quit boxing in 2015,” Nicole, 26, told Belfast Live.

“I had been playing this sport since I was six years old. I didn’t know anything other than boxing and I love the sport.

“But I just got up one day and thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I fell in love with it.

Nicole Meli pictured with her father and trainer Alfredo Meli Snr at Immaculata Boxing Club in 2007

“After about a week or so I started to doubt my decision. I thought I missed it too much, so I decided to give something back to my community and coach some of the young fighters who are rising through the ranks.

“As I was coaching alongside the whole team and learning from other coaches, I was also doing the amateur weigh-ins for the championships.

“Seeing them fight in competitions and make the corner for them, I really missed it. I just wanted to get in the ring and compete again.

“So I was pretty involved in those six years. I kept thinking about a comeback, but I kept saying I was too old for it.”

Nicole says her mental health declined before the lockdown and admits depression “kind of crept over me.”

The 26-year-old said her co-workers noticed her mood was dropping and that she was not her usual “bubbly self”.

Nicole said: “During all of this, I never really noticed that I was suffering from depression. I guess it came to me somehow.

“I work as a hairdresser, and a few girls noticed that I was different. They said I needed help because I was not as usual.

Nicole Meli lost more than four stones to return to competitive boxing

“I’ve always been a bubbly character who loved to talk to people. Then I went into my shell and didn’t want to talk to anyone, and I would come to work in a bad mood.”

Nicole sought help from a counselor, while she also turned to exercise instead of medication to try and improve her mental health.

“I just realized that when I was boxing when I was young, I was always happy. I was surrounded by family and friends in the gym, and I was with other people who knew me,” said she declared.

“It brought me more happiness. I was with people who like to joke and spit, and they turn you away from anything negative. And they’re all there to help you if you need it.

“A boxing hall is a brilliant environment.

“So training and boxing helped me a lot in my own fight with depression. I could have just sat at home and felt depressed, overweight. I could have begged the doctor to give me some help. drugs, but I don’t think that would have helped me. “

She added: “During the lockdown I went to see a counselor and I had also just resumed training. After six weeks the counselor said she was happy to log me out as I had completely changed.

“She asked me what I was doing, because I looked so much happier. And I told her I was back to training. She advised me to keep training in. because of the positive impact it had on me.

“She didn’t expect me to be a boxer, though. She thought I was a footballer or something. So she was a little shocked that I love getting hit!

Nicole Meli (right) with Immaculata teammate Caitlin Fryers and little Dáithí Mac Gabhann after winning her Ulster Elite final

“I’m all for mental health because I’ve had teammates who have suffered before and some have committed suicide. I never realized how beneficial training and exercise was.

“Because I had never suffered from mental health issues before, I never knew how much training could help me.”

Although Nicole’s depression was a gradual process, she vividly remembers when she decided to change her life.

She said: “When Covid hit I woke up one morning and thought to myself, ‘I’m going to resume training.’

“I started off slow. I just did a bit of walking and then running, and I lost the first stone of weight on my own.

“And then when the restrictions started to loosen, we were allowed to train outdoors at Dunville Park, which is based right where Immaculata is on Falls Road.

“I got to meet Martin Lindsay (coach of Immaculata BC and former British boxing champion) and the young boxers, and to be honest they put me in my place. I hadn’t trained in years. and my physical form was not there.

“Then on the second lockdown I was working with Martin and he kept telling me to reduce my weight and we’ll find out what I want to do after that.

“I went from 82 kilos to 60 and Martin asked me, ‘Do you want to box?’ I thought he was joking and asked him to give me a week to think about it.

“I didn’t really need the week, if I’m honest. I was ready to come back. That’s why I was training. I wanted to resume the fight.

Nicole celebrates her Ulster Elite win with Immaculata coach Frankie Slane

“I didn’t want to train just to lose weight, I wanted to box. And that’s a decision I’m happy with. Gaining weight was tough at first but the coaching staff kept me motivated.

“My fight weight is 54 kg, so I went from 82 to 54 (a weight loss of 61 lbs). I had no idea I had so much weight on me.

“When I retired from boxing people kept telling me I was gaining weight. My friends would tell me but I would ignore them and block them.

“Then, during my depression, I woke up one morning and realized that I had gained a lot of weight. So I decided to start training again and hopefully box again.”

Nicole’s first training session on her comeback was against Ulster and Irish champion Elite Caitlin Fryers, a good friend and teammate of Immaculata.

Nicole admits it was a “baptism of fire” with top amateur Caitlin.

“It was about two months after I came back to training, and the spar was just to get me back on track,” she said.

“I knew I wouldn’t be the fittest. When Martin suggested the first spar, I thought he was joking. But it was the best thing for me.

“When I was young I never backed down from anything. So I walked in with little Caitlin, and to be honest she had a significant physical advantage. But I was happy to be back. , and that brought me.

“Once I got back into shape we did more regular spars, and my first competition since coming back was the Ulster Senior Novice Open in October, but I had a forfeit.

“I entered that competition at 57kg and then the next one was the Ulster Senior Elites which I won at 54kg.

“My first Ulster Elites was when I was 17 and lost. I came in again when I was 18 and lost again, this time to Olympian Michaela Walsh.”

Nicole admits she considered retiring from the Ulster Elites in 2021, doubting her own abilities after such a long sabbatical from the sport.

“I was nervous to come back after such a long absence. It was 50-50 whether I went in or not, because after being away for almost seven years, I didn’t know if I would be good enough”, a- she admitted.

“I spoke to Martin, and he just said if he didn’t think I was good enough, he wouldn’t have signed me up.

Nicole Meli (right) in her Ulster Elite 54kg final with Clodagh McComiskey

“So that reassured me. He said we would take it day by day, every workout and practice as we go.”

Nicole provided a lot of support in the ring last Thursday night in Girdwood, and a promise was made to her grandfather John ‘Petesy’ Townsend.

“My grandmother battled cancer and I promised her I would go and win the Ulster Elite for him,” said Nicole.

“He told me not to put the pressure on myself anymore, but I told him I would win for him. He was fighting hard and I was going to fight hard for him.

“There were a few times during camp where I almost broke down and cry, but it kept me going.”

Nicole kept her promise, sticking to a rigid game plan to win her Ulster Elite final last Thursday night.

“We knew my opponent would pull all the guns out. She knew I had been out for so long, so we expected pressure early,” Nicole said.

“My corner told me not to get into a fight because I love good old junk. We stuck to the game plan, I boxed and moved and it worked for me.

“I thought I lost, to be honest. But luckily I put my hand up and it was a very proud moment.

“It was great to prove that I’m back and here to stay. And I’ve shown that I won’t let anything stop me, be it the depression, the weight gain. I will get over it all.”

Now that she’s back, Nicole is hoping her success in the Ulster Elite will earn her a spot on the Commonwealth squad for next year’s Games in Birmingham.

She said: “That’s the big goal.

“That’s if they pick the new weights and my name is in the mix. I understand if they can forget about me after being away for so long.

“But I hope that after winning the Ulster Elite it proves how strong I am, physically and mentally.

She added: “Without my friends, family and the boxing club, I wouldn’t have come back.

“Immaculata is a special club and a club close to my heart. If I left Immaculata, I would not move to another club.”