Two months ago, history was made at this year’s Australian Elite Boxing Championships and Pacific Games Qualification Event. At 21-years-old, Marissa Williamson Pohlman became the first woman to receive the Arthur Tunstall Trophy in its 104 year history.
But speaking exclusively to The Inner Sanctum, Pohlman admitted that the achievement is a huge deal given the controversial past of the late sports administrator that the award was named after.
“I guess there’s an irony in all that. You know, having an award named after Arthur Tunstall, [who is] someone who employ[ed] that women shouldn’t be doing sport [and] someone regarded as extremely racist,” Pohlman shared.
Typically, the trophy had previously been awarded to the best male boxer of the year’s championship. But a move by Boxing Australia’s board to amend the award criteria last year allowed for female fighters to be considered for the trophy.
Pohlman’s win is in stark contrast with the figure named after the trophy, who often faced backlash for comments made against minorities during his time as Australia’s Olympic Games secretary, which included Indigenous people and people with disabilities.
“To be first woman to be able to win that award, to be the first woman to win that [award] as an Aboriginal person too is a big deal to me and my community. It’s a huge thing,” she said.
For Pohlman, who is a Ngarrindjeri woman, her heritage plays a big role in her life. Since April, Pohlman has been balancing her boxing with her duties as a Heritage Policy Officer for the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet. Despite the heavy workload that comes with pursuing both, she admits that “pure passion” allows her to manage her busy schedule.
As her work outside the ring “aligns to [her] cultural values”, she explains that at times it doesn’t feel like she’s doing a job.
But with campaigning for the Australian Indigenous Voice referendum ramping up in recent times, Pohlman has been vocal about her personal experience in the current Australian political landscape. Back in August, she appeared on the Building Doors with Lauren Karan podcast where she went into depth about “the paradigm shift” she observed the country going through.
These days, Pohlman admitted that things have become even more overwhelming for her given that voting for the referendum is less than a week away.
“It’s obviously challenging with treaty progression and with the referendum coming up. The professional, personal and cultural load at the moment has been really hectic,” she explains.
Since her appearance on the Building Doors podcast, Pohlman explained that the podcast’s host Lauren Karan has been seeking sponsorship for her which allows for her to take time off work and develop herself in peace.
“With the support of the community I can find ways to get through [the hard times],” she said.
“My family support me a lot with the home stuff too. Obviously I’m so grateful for that.”
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Over the past few years, Pohlman has been grinding hard in the sport. She’s currently on a record of 9-9. Though she’s gaining attention for her fighting abilities, she was previously carving a path in football. There was potential for her to be a threat on the field with the boxer having the AFL’s U16 Sportsperson of the Year award under her belt.
Having already played in a preliminary and grand final, a sudden broken arm saw her re-evaluate her sporting aspirations.
“At the time I was trying to have my first fight. I guess having that first setback of an injury kind of made me reflect on what I wanted to do. I was trying out for the TAC team the Western Jets. Literally at the same time I received a letter of acceptance to go to New Zealand for a boxing development tour,” she recalled.
“I chose the New Zealand boxing tour because I knew that football would take me all around Australia. But boxing had the potential to take me internationally, so I guess that why I made the switch.
“The transition [to boxing] was pretty easy. I felt like it was pretty organic, it happened quite naturally. I guess they’re both outlets in their own right. I’m thankful that I decided to make that change and transfer to boxing.”
The progression of women’s boxing in Australia has seen a growth over the past few years. But if you ask Pohlman, the appointment of Sweden’s Santiago Nieva has helped bolstered it in a way not seen in the sport’s history. She admits that the last six months been the most significant for the sport.
“[Santiago Nieva] has sort of come into the role all guns blazing,” she shared.
“He’s really pushed for more international competition and experience, which has resulted in driving the longest international campaign that Australia has ever had. But then, the most successful women’s world championship campaign that we’ve ever had in Australian history. Everyone either finished in the top ten of the world or they’ve medalled in all three medals this year which has never happened,” she explained.
“This next international trip I’m going on is gonna be fully funded because there’s going to be funding opportunities. Not having to stress about having to pay to go compete is amazing. It allows me to keep progressing and hopefully go to the Olympics next year.”
In an era where women’s sports are continuing to draw mass crowds worldwide, governments of all branches are also assisting to help the growing space. The NSW government is a recent example of political intervention, recently announcing that the state would be putting $30 million towards improving sport facilities for women and girls in grassroots sport.
Whilst Pohlman is appreciative of the recent government intervention, she admits that there’s room for improvement.
“As someone who works in government, I’m pretty equipped with how governments operate. Just because funding goes out, it doesn’t mean it gets spent. We actually have to jump through to actually get that funding. I think improving government policy and trying to make it less of a burden for people that apply for funding,” she said.
“I think it’s great [the government funding] but it’s only going towards the mainstream sports at the moment. Boxing is a minority sport, especially for women. If you look at the percentage of women in male dominated sports like boxing, it’s very minimal.”
During the course of the interview, Pohlman suggested that “changing the culture” of financial support athletes would go a long way. She agonised that Australia didn’t have a system that saw “athletes get paid to box or train full time”, a system that Pohlman says is being offered overseas.
“I wish that there was an opportunity like that over here that I could pursue in Australia. But unfortunately there’s not,” she admitted.
Although she says that it’s hard to plan for what the rest of the year will look like, she has a rough idea.
For Pohlman, her focus will be on the international competitions that are coming up in the new year. This includes the Pacific Games, after it was announced that she’ll be joining 12 other boxers in the Solomon Islands.
Though her main focus is solely on one thing.
“To qualify for the Olympics. I’m completely dedicating myself to Paris,” she said.
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