At age 15, Elsidita Selaj decided she wanted to box.
Through sheer stubbornness she has succeeded, breaking down her family’s resistance and sexist attitudes to become Albania’s first — and only — competitive female boxer.
“In the beginning, boxing was for me an impossible, unimaginable love,” the now 20-year-old told AFP after a recent training session in her hometown of Shkoder in Albania’s north.
“But thanks to my determination, it has become a possible love that belongs entirely to me,” she added.
It was five years ago that she began hitting the boxing gym every day after school, begging to be trained in a sport considered the domain of men in a country with strict gender roles.
Jetmir Kuci, a nine-time Albanian boxing champion and coach, initially refused to work with her.
“I was a bit traditional,” he recalled.
“It was very difficult to accept to train Elsidita, thinking about the judgements of the people of the city where we live.”
But eventually, he agreed.
“With her firmness, she was able to break a taboo for all of us.”
Selaj, a licensed amateur boxer, has since proved her prowess, taking home a bronze medal at a regional Balkans tournament in 2017, followed by a second and third place finish in the 2018 and 2019 European Amateur Boxing Championships respectively.
She now has her sights set on the Olympic Games in Tokyo, but will have to overcome a tough qualifying round in the spring, not to mention the financial hurdle of other expenses involved.
“The goal of every athlete, not only mine, is the Olympics,” she said.
Her coach believes that a postponement of the Games due to the pandemic “may work in her favour because it gave her more time”.
And if it is not Japan, there will still be Paris in 2024, he added.
Training with men
Success has won Selaj support from both her family — now her biggest fans — as well as from the town hall, who pay her a monthly allowance of 490 euros in a poor country where the average salary is 420 euros a month.
“I am ready to sacrifice, to work day and night so that my daughter will one day be world champion for me and all Albanians,” said her father, Luan Selaj.
Boxing is a relatively new sport in Albania, having been banned in the 1960s by the country’s former communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who considered it “too violent”.
Today the country has some 1,100 boxing enthusiasts, about 300 of whom participate in national and international competitions.
But as the only woman in the group, Selaj trains with men.
Still a student in university, she hits the gym for up to six hours a day, often sparring with 16-year-old Ertan Kraja, who also aspires to make it big in boxing.
“At first I was afraid to hit her too hard, but given her strength, her abilities, I got used to it, it’s like fighting a man,” he told AFP after a recent bout.
After her initial resistance, Selaj’s 64-year-old grandmother, Kimete Bashaj, has become an avid boxing fan, following the world’s top bouts on TV.
“I didn’t think that Elsidita should be an Albanian boxer because as such, she could face prejudice. But now that she has received medals, I want her to continue,” she said, sitting next to her granddaughter’s trophies.
Selaj, for her part, finally feels whole.
“Boxing for me is more than a sport: it is in perfect harmony with my character, my state of mind, which is animated by a kind of aggressive rebellion but which inside hides a lot of love and passion”, she said, wiping off beads of sweat.