June 9, 2023

A moment that changed me: I was unfit and flipping burgers when I decided to win the Olympics | Olympic Games

In the summer of 2012, it felt as if everyone in London was watching the Olympics. It was the same for us, on our lunch break in the McDonald’s staff room. I felt as if I was on the journey with those athletes – every punch that was thrown, every stride on the sprint. I loved watching Usain Bolt and the British boxers Anthony Joshua and Nicola Adams.

I had been working at McDonald’s since I left sixth form, in the branch at Victoria station. Sometimes, I’d see people I’d gone to school with who were on their way to university, or starting their careers. I was taking a year out and I didn’t really have a plan for my life. It was starting to feel like I’d been left behind.

That afternoon, with the TV on, there were three of us on our break and we were watching Anthony Joshua in the super-heavyweight final. It was a close fight, back and forth, but he battled on and got the victory. I thought: “I need a moment like this, I need this type of energy in my life.” Then I thought: “I’m going to get to the next Olympics.”

If you’d been at my school and wondered which one of us might end up being an athlete, I wouldn’t be in the lineup – I’d be in the canteen. The others would be playing football at lunchtime, but I’d be waiting for seconds. By the time I was 19 and working at McDonald’s, I had joined a boxing gym and I’d started to drop weight, but I only went once or twice a week, in a failing attempt to keep fit. Nobody would have said I could have been an Olympian.

That afternoon, I told the manager at work I was going to need to reduce my hours, and then I went home and told my mum my plan: that I was going to take boxing seriously. I asked her if she would help fund my life for a while. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m going to be a champion one day.” She was worried. “Isn’t boxing dangerous?” she said. “And if you’re going to be a champion, aren’t you meant to start when you’re much younger?” We had seen other people try to make it in football and not get there. I was nearly 20, unfit and saying I was going to be a champion. It sounded ridiculous, but she supported me.

I looked at Joshua’s rise – he won the big amateur tournament in London, then he was English champion, British champion, won silver at the World Championships and gold at the Olympics. I could set targets like that. Accomplishing them was a different thing, but I could see the path.

I started training every day. I had a coach, Robert England, who saw me hit the pads and told me I had something. Around the same time, I started my degree at the University of East London, so I’d use the weights in the gym there, and I was running every day, no matter the weather.

Lawrence Okolie
Lawrence Okolie has held the WBO cruiserweight title since 2021. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images/Reuters

I had been lazy before – if I had been asked to do 10 push-ups, I’d only try to do five – but now I had a focus. When I started to see the results of my hard work, my internal voice became encouraging: why do 10 push-ups when you could do 12? I started to realise the more I put in, the more I was getting out.

My friends and family thought I was crazy, but they supported me and kept me accountable. If you have good people around you who know your goal, they push you towards it. When I wanted to go out and have a drink, or a second piece of cake, it was: “Mate, don’t you have the Olympics to go to?” It was still hard – I’d be tired mentally from uni and have to train. I’d say no to parties I wanted to say yes to. All I had was this dream, but no guarantee I’d get there.

There were lots of times I thought it would never happen. I had started to win fights and, in 2014, I sparred with Joshua, who gave me lots of confidence. Then, in the spring of 2015, I fractured my hand. The Rio Olympics were the following year and I still hadn’t had an international fight – I wasn’t recognised by the England Boxing authority, let alone Team GB. I’d entered the English tournament, the ABA championships, but because my hand was injured I knew I wouldn’t make it to the end. My first fight was against a guy who’d got to the finals the year before. I won – and that was just enough to get on the radar.

When my hand had healed a few months later, I went for an assessment with Team GB, and by the end of the year I was fighting internationally for the first time. Somehow, between then and the following spring, I managed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. In just under four years, I’d achieved my dream.

Going to Rio was amazing. I was with all these athletes I looked up to and I could say: “I’m an Olympian, too.” It also taught me a valuable lesson. When I was aiming for the Olympics, nothing could stop me, but I didn’t set the target of winning a medal with the same intent. When I was eliminated, I was proud of myself for getting there, but I also thought: set a target, but don’t let that be it. When I turned professional soon afterwards and started winning titles, I racked up a lot quickly, because my mindset was never “I’m just happy to be here”. I am happy and grateful, but I am also thinking: what’s next?

In March, I retained my world title, but I don’t live my life as the world champion. I understand that one day someone will be better than me, or if I have to retire; someone else will be world champion. Boxing doesn’t define me, but that decision I made on that lunch break changed my life. Sometimes, I don’t recognise the person I used to be. I remember being scared, afraid to speak up or stand out. I accepted things I would never accept now and I was someone who cut corners, rather than pushed myself. Now, I look at the world very differently, and I definitely believe it’s possible to achieve a dream, however big.

Dare to Change Your Life by Lawrence Okolie is published by Ebury (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
Lawrence Okolie fights Chris Billam-Smith on May 27 at Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium, live on Sky Sports. Tickets available from BOXXER.com