She's tiny, tough as hell, and super-fit. Liz White's inner fire has taken her from a background scarred by poverty and bullying to a national youth boxing title. The American-born 17-year-old found the sport through a tattooed British boxer, and inner peace at a Stokes Valley marae. Now she's eyeing the Rio Olympics.
Liz White has sweated for hours within the white mirrored walls of the Petone Sports & Boxing Club.
She has sparred with men, pounded the treadmill, whirred yellow skipping ropes and beaten giant boxing bags that hang from steel hooks.
The club is run by proud Geordie Robbie Martin and his wife, Angie. He admits his own boxing career was "nothing spectacular", but he found his niche 15 years ago when he started helping younger boxers.
He first set eyes on Liz White when she was a sullen 14-year-old.
"She was very standoffish, didn't want to talk to anyone, didn't want to engage with anyone, thought she knew better than everybody – a typical teenager.
"She's from a pretty big family; I think there are five or six of them. Like any family, they have their ups and downs. She found it pretty tough for a while; she's had to fend for herself a lot."
White had good reason to be a bit surly. American-born, she shifted to Australia with her family when she was 4, and to Wainuiomata when she was 7. The move did not go well.
"Because I came from America and had an accent, I wasn't like everybody else. I used to not get treated very well; I used to get bullied every day."
When she was 13, the bullying reached its peak.
"One day I was walking home from school and I got smashed by a number of people. That made me want to go to the gym, so I quit school and started doing correspondence and lifting weights every day. I told myself it would never happen again."
She often jogged over Wainuiomata Hill to train, before running home again in the dark.
She got fit, but her struggles outside the gym continued. She decided to go back to school, but was told by her family there was no money.
"My parents said if I wanted to go back to school, I'd have to busk."
And so she headed to Lower Hutt's Riverbank Market each weekend, where she sang for hours among the stalls, paying her own expenses at Heretaunga College.
But again trouble wasn't far away. "This time I didn't get bullied, but I was getting into some bad stuff – smoking drugs and stuff. I did a few things; tagging, stealing.
"I'd go out and steal food from the local supermarket. Just the basics, stuff that was easy to carry. I got into so much trouble at the new school that eventually I had no more warnings and I got kicked out."
She was packed off to a year-long alternative education course at Koraunui Marae in Stokes Valley. It was her last chance.
She arrived with a big chip on her shoulder, but found only kindness. "They were very friendly and supportive. They were like family after a year."
She learned about Maori cultural values and respect, and how to recite her American-Australian-Kiwi whakapapa.
Along the way, something clicked. "I didn't think it would change me but it did."
Tutor Charmaine Whaanga said White took about six weeks to lose the attitude.
"When she came to us, she was a victim of being bullied at school and she reacted by doing what was done to her. She then realised if she carried on with her behaviour her education would be jeopardised.
"So she stopped doing that and got focused. We all have our attitudes. Learning through tikanga Maori gives them a sense of belonging."
White decided to get into boxing competitively, spurred on by a comment from her then-boyfriend.
"He was like: 'You'll never be a good boxer – you should leave the boxing up to me.' I went to Robbie and said I wanted to do competitive boxing. I didn't really expect to like it so much."
She ramped up her training to another level, doing 1000 situps a day, and sometimes biking over Wainuiomata Hill with weights in her backpack.
Martin runs his club with the help of the Pelorus Trust.
"Boxing's not the reason we do this," he says. "We do the gym to develop young people and bring them on. Boxing lets them stand taller and develop a bit more confidence in life.
"Thousands of kids have a sneaky drink, or a puff on a joint. If it stays unchecked, that's when it becomes a problem. You can't be a boxer and go out and get pissed; it simply doesn't work.
"What happened to Liz was she realised that she wouldn't just let herself down, she'd let me down."
White's fitness, honed from years of running and pedalling throughout the Hutt Valley, began to tell. Her first fight was in Taupo, against a former national champion.
"I pretty much went at her like a punching bag for three rounds. It was pretty intense. I had something in my head saying never back down, so I just went at her."
Martin has seen her improve out of sight. "She's very strong, she's getting more mobile. She's got a good defence now, whereas before her only form of defence was her face."
But the biggest change has come in her outlook. A surly silence has been replaced by grins and hugs.
She sings away happily in the car, and recites her whakapapa in Maori.
"Liz has gone from being a little girl who didn't want to speak to you, didn't want to engage with you.
"My wife went to Tahiti for a week. When she got back, Liz ran up to her and put her arms around her; it was like she'd been gone for six months."
Last month, White went to Auckland for the 110th Boxing New Zealand Nationals. More than 170 boxers entered the ring during the tournament.
In the 60kg category, White came up against Jossie Pakinga from Waikato. The fight was streamed live, meaning White's extended family in the United States could watch.
After a wobbly start against the more experienced Pakinga, White's fitness came through. The fight was eventually stopped, as White battered her opponent, snapping her head back with precise jabs.
"We knew [Pakinga] was going to be strong and come out fighting," Martin says. "But we knew if Liz could stay with her, fitness would win the fight, and that's exactly what happened."
White said the victory felt great.
"It was like all my training had paid off."
With a national title in her grasp, she has now set a goal of making the 2016 Rio Olympics.
"It's going to be a lot of hard work but nothing's impossible."
She's now working at a hotel, while training up to five hours a day, and planning to polish off her NCEA.
Whether she makes the Olympics or not, Martin will be there. This fiercely independent teen has given him his biggest thrill in boxing so far.
"I trained a guy who, after I trained him, ultimately won a Commonwealth professional title. I got a lot of joy out of that, but I've got more out of seeing Liz develop as a young woman and a boxer," Martin says.
He knows what happens when kids go off the rails. Of his seven children, two have done time. Another is addled by drugs and needs a kidney transplant.
"My kids are all grown up and in the UK. But these kids are here. They're in Petone, they're in Wainui, they're everywhere. And they just need someone to stand up and give them a hand."
TALE OF THE TAPE
Name: Liz White
New Zealand national female under-60kg youth champion
Birthplace: United States
Record: Five fights, three wins, two losses
Fighting out of: Petone Sports & Boxing Club
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- © Fairfax NZ News
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