Rosena Allin-Khan takes on a punch bag
4 min read04 June
In the first in a new series, Rosamund Urwin meets up with a Parliamentarian to discuss how they unwind away from Westminster. First up, kickboxer Dr Rosena Allin-Khan
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan has a mean left hook. The Labour MP for Tooting has been boxing since her 20s, although she limits herself to training and sparring for fear of having to canvass with a black eye. “Much as I would love to do it competitively, I don’t think it’s really befitting of an MP,” she says.
Allin-Khan, 44, trains at Balham Boxing Club in her constituency, where I have witnessed her deft footwork and sharp jabs. Recently, she has also taken up mixed martial arts (MMA) and Muay Thai, a form of kickboxing. All this exercise pays off on the doorstep.
“During the [2016 Tooting] by-election, I didn’t have long to win around lots of voters so I’d sprint between doors,” she laughs. “I still run when I canvass. If there’s no answer and I see another door opening, I leg it over there.”
The biggest benefit of boxing, though, is for her mind, especially in troubled times. Allin-Khan, who was a junior doctor before she became an MP, has been working shifts at her local hospital, St George’s in Tooting, south London, during the pandemic. She is also grieving for her late father, who died a few weeks ago from complications relating to dementia.
“I struggled seeing so much death,” she admits. “It’s knackering, and you’re seeing some of your colleagues die or become very ill.
Martial arts and boxing have helped me through the grieving process
“That takes a toll … Emotionally it was very difficult and then after that, I lost my dad. So I have relied on exercise to be able to get out of bed sometimes. Martial arts and boxing have really helped me through the acute grieving process. In that hour, I’m just focused on pushing through the pain barrier.”
Allin-Khan, the shadow minister for mental health, has worked in conflict zones around the world –– yet has found the pandemic particularly challenging. “Even as a seasoned veteran of grief, the pandemic was different: the scale of death was so huge and I found it particularly painful working with grieving families,” she says. “I wondered: if seasoned doctors were struggling to deal with that level of grief, what must it have been like for our other nurses, porters and junior doctors?” This inspired her to create Labour’s ‘Care for Carers’ package, which would ensure that all NHS staff and care workers are eligible for fast-tracked help with their mental health.
As a child, Allin-Khan loved karate. It was after she won a place to study medicine aged 24 at Lucy Cavendish College in Cambridge that she joined the university boxing club with a female friend. She found the discipline enticing, but struggled to adjust at first. “Instinctively it was quite hard to stick to boxing and not kick somebody as I was so used to karate,” she recalls.
She and her friend were the only women on the team at the time. “I am meeting so many more female boxers now,” she says. She returned to boxing after having her two daughters, now eight and six: “I missed being fit.”
Balham Boxing Club has since become her second family. She is also the club doctor, carrying out medical checks to ensure boxers are fit to fight, and sitting ringside at events and competitions. “I jump in if people are injured, or treat them after their fight. Sometimes there’s a lot of blood.”
Perhaps ironically for a woman who can pack a punch, Allin-Khan says her main motivation for going into politics was to promote peace. “People ask: ‘If you lost your seat tomorrow, what would you do?’” she says. “I’d like a job with the UN as part of their genocide team or something. It would be human-rights related. I want a life dedicated to bringing about peace.”
Rosamund Urwin is a journalist for The Sunday Times
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