Picture North Vancouver's Lara Cubitt, a woman who was so dominant in the boxing ring that she won two Canadian titles and went toe-to-with a world champion, locked in one of the fights of her life.
This intense struggle pits Cubitt against . . . an instant breakfast. Ravaged by relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis, the woman who at one time was compared favourably to Laila Ali summons the strength to get off the couch and attempts to make the "instant" meal that will power her return trip back to the couch. It does not go well.
“I remember just thinking, ‘What the f**k!? This is not instant!’” Cubitt, now 35, says as she recalls the story from her sun-soaked Lower Lonsdale apartment last month. She, too, is glowing as she tells the story, showing verve and volume in complete contrast with the struggles she describes. “You’ve got like a five-step process here, goddammit! I’ve got to get off the couch to the fridge, get the milk out and just stand there and rest for a bit. Then open the pack, pour the milk in. Sit down. Wait. Rest. And then be like, OK, big move here — gotta shake it up. Shake it!”
Boxing is full of amazing stories ranging from real-life Joe Louis sending Adolf Hitler into a rage by defeating German world champion Max Schmeling, to fictional Rocky Balboa ending the Cold War with his win over Ivan Drago at the end of Rocky IV. None of those stories, however, likely featured a battle against a breakfast drink. But this isn't a regular boxing story. There isn't even a big boxing match at the end. But there is a fighter — a powerful one who fought back when life threatened to knock her off her feet for good. She's gotten herself up off the mat — traded it in for one more suited to yoga, in fact — and she's got a message she wants to pass on to anyone else who has been knocked down by multiple sclerosis, by illness, by life: keep fighting.
• • •
Cubitt is a little sheepish about why she bounced around so many North Vancouver high schools. Born to a close-knit and loving family — a British immigrant father, who for years has worked as a stockbroker for Odlum Brown; a supportive French Canadian mother who has dabbled in many things, including garden design; and a younger sister who also still lives in North Vancouver with two children of her own — Cubitt says she led a little-miss-perfect life until she hit Grade 8 and couldn't keep up the act.
"I couldn't handle it anymore and went in a completely different direction," she says. "I was an angry little teenager. I hated school. At the time I was just, I don't know, maybe (I was) just like a hormonal teenager fueled with some kind of fire."
Her scholastic path took her to Sutherland secondary, where she dropped out; Keith Lynn alternative school, which didn't go all the way to Grade 12; Carson Graham, where she was kicked out following a physical altercation with a teacher ("no shots were thrown" she says) and back to Sutherland where she graduated a year late. In the meantime she took up bodybuilding, which turned into kickboxing, which eventually led to Vancouver's famed — and famously grimy — Astoria Boxing Club.
"I was a wild child and people were like, 'I bet you'd just kick ass,'" she says, describing how she ended up tagging along with a friend who told her she'd like it at the Astoria club. Cubitt, then 18 years old, did not like it. Not at first, anyway.
"What the hell would make this guy think I'd like this?" she says. "It smells like beer and kind of pee . . . (there's a) bunch of people yelling at each other. And it's like, dirty."
Word got back to her, however, that George Angelomatis, an actual judge who presided over the boxing club when he wasn't banging his gavel in a courtroom, asked about her after her first appearance at the club.
"Really? They asked about me?" Cubitt recalls thinking at the time. "Yeah? Yeah! I'm going to go back."
First, however, she needed a wardrobe change. "I did come down there in my fancy pants," she says with a laugh, describing her original outfit as a G-string under thin white tights, with a cropped top shirt. She quickly realized that kind of outfit did not mix well with the sweat and blood flying around the place.
"It was like I was teaching some kind of step class or something," she says. "I realized I might need people to take me a little more serious. Nobody's at the Astoria to be the sex kitten."
When she was suitably attired, it didn't take long for Angelomatis and Terry Cooke, the man who would become her main coach, to get her into the ring for a sparring session against one of the club's female boxers. "They don't take it easy on you. They're just like, get in there and let's see what's up. I went in there — I started bleeding probably in the first 20 seconds." Cubitt has vivid memories of getting blasted in the nose for the first time.
"You can't even think. Your brain goes numb. It's so intensely painful. But I stayed in."
It was, in fact, Cubitt's determination to stay in, rather than her boxing prowess, that caught the coaches' attention.
"I was covered in blood when I came out. They told me I kept going forward. They liked this."
With that, Cubitt was an Astoria boxer. A little more than a year later she took her first real fight, ready or not. Tucked away in some small Fraser Valley club, Cubitt barely listened as her coaches told her the rules of the ring. "They told me if you knock her down and hurt the girl, you need to go to a neutral corner," she says. Soon thereafter, Cubitt knocked her opponent down. "I looked up and was like, 'Oh crap, where do I go?' I went to my corner, then to her corner, then to the neutral corner. George was like, 'The white corner! What is wrong with you?! So then I come back out and knock her down again and then it's over. It was all over in 30 seconds. I didn't even fight, I didn't even know what happened."
What happened was the first win — an emphatic one at that — for a future champion.
• • •
"She moves in the ring with a natural, impressive fluidity. Smooth combinations, nice footwork, sharp and precise body movements." That was how writer Timothy Taylor described Cubitt in a long feature about the rise of women's boxing published in a 2003 edition of chic men's lifestyle magazine Toro. By then Cubitt had already claimed her first Canadian title at 22 and was gaining fame as a photogenic fighter who looked like a wholesome fitness model and punched like a pile driver.
"Cubitt may be seen as part of the next generation of female fighters. . . . Fighters in whom we might finally see the potential of Dallas Malloy, Christy Martin, and Laila Ali combined. Credibility and popularity finally realized," Taylor wrote. Her old coach Terry Cooke says Cubitt was good boxer and, more importantly, a great student right from the start.
"She was very impressive. She learned. I've had many good fighters, but the best ones, always you can teach them things. A lot of them you can't teach them anything — you just throw them in there."
The descriptions of her precise body movements and fierce work ethic are particularly jarring when you realize that this is around the time that multiple sclerosis was starting to slice her up from the inside out. Cubitt would come home from training sessions and collapse in pain and exhaustion. "I would get into the ring and I wouldn't be able to breath after about 30 seconds," she says. The first time the symptoms hit they lasted for more than half a year and then went away, so she ramped up her training again and took home her second national title. That led to international fights, including a Canada versus France dual meet in April of 2003. There Cubitt was pitted against France's Myriam Lamare, the world champion in the 63 kilogram class.
Her usual coach wasn't able to attend so she had an unfamiliar face in her corner, which only added to the difficulty of facing a world champ while unknowingly battling MS. Still, she held her own, to the shock of many onlookers, including her cornerman. "The guy seemed surprised that I wasn't getting beat up and I was like, 'Yo! I gotta win this here! You gotta help me out!'" She didn't win, but she came out of the fight feeling like she left her mark. Literally, in fact. "I came out clean and she. . . had a black eye from here to here. I was like, hey, that's something."
Her body was breaking though, and taking her mind with it. One of the snapping points came at a meet held in Kansas where she got into the ring against the U.S. champion after spending a week depriving herself of water and running under the scorching Midwest sun in an effort to make weight.
"I couldn't even remember my name," she says. "I was going to fight someone who was good and sharp and southpaw. It was about 30 seconds. I got hit once and my coach was like, OK, you're done. . . . There were signs that things weren't quite right, that you shouldn't be fighting these people right now."
She kept on going though, moving up a weight class, going back to nationals and getting beaten up again. That's around the time that Cooke told her he wouldn't let her train anymore. Not with him at least.
"She was as good as anybody from around here," Cooke says. "(But) she wasn't able to perform like she should have been. . . . I told her to take a year off and see how she felt after that."
The message was not well received. "She was kind of pissed off with that," Cooke says with a chuckle. "It turned out for the best. She wasn't doing what she was capable of."
Cubitt now knows that Cooke may have saved her from even more serious damage. But back then? "I was pissed! I was like, 'This is my whole life! This is everything to me!'" says Cubitt, adding that she is now incredibly grateful that Cooke took the steps he did. "He did it because something was not right. I fought one way, and suddenly I was different. I could feel it was different but I didn't want to admit it was different. I wanted to just try harder. . . . If I'd known that I had multiple sclerosis and had scars in my brain, I wouldn't want to be punched in the head."
Cubitt took time off, tried to come back, and then quit the sport for good, which was pretty devastating for someone who always prided herself on succeeding just by working harder than everyone else. "To get something where it was, 'No, you can't just work harder, buddy.'. . . It was wild. It really gives you that (feeling of), what is life about?"
Then things got worse. In 2005 her body went numb from the neck down for a couple of months. In 2007 she had a vertigo spell and collapsed. Then her body went numb again. By that time Cubitt had completed a degree at Simon Fraser University and was working in corporate communications. Her work, however, was suffering right alongside her body. "My co-ordination started to go, I started to lose some mobility in my legs," she says, adding it was sickening for her considering the peak physical shape she'd been in as one of the world's best boxers just a few years before.
"It was horrifying," she says. "I felt really ashamed that I had this. . . . To watch yourself quite rapidly become disabled, it's very isolating because you have to internalize so much. You suddenly disassociate with yourself from before, with other people who know you."
All of this happened with no diagnosis, no real explanation despite repeated trips to medical professionals. Finally in 2009 she got her answer. A neurologist went back and looked at an MRI taken in 2002 and the results were clear as day. She'd been living with multiple sclerosis for at least seven years. She was not relieved to finally have an answer.
"I'd almost gotten comfortable with, 'We don't know what it is,'" she says. "(But) it's good that I found out. Things went downhill so fast after that."
Regular drug treatments used to control MS symptoms were tried and mostly failed. There was the fight with the breakfast drink, other fights with vegetable brushes that refused to lift themselves. There was the drop-foot caused by lax leg muscles.
"I was dragging my foot around, almost fell down the stairs. . . . There were so many sensory, crazy things happening all at once," she says. Another MRI was taken. "The neurologist was like, 'This looks ugly. Those drugs don't work. We've got to pull out the big guns.'"
Meanwhile the boxing champ was preparing herself for what she now felt was inevitable: life in a wheelchair. She'd been to MS clinics, she knew the realities many other patients faced. "Things were just shutting down," she says. "I was scared. I didn't want to really accept it, but I was just starting to be like, you want to be a little realistic with this because things are progressing strongly in the wrong direction."
• • •
In her sunny Lower Lonsdale apartment, Cubitt shows off her yoga prowess to a visiting photographer. Her hair is cropped basically to a buzzcut, her smile is wide and her body still shows the physique that made her a feared fighter. Her movements are slow and deliberate, not violent and frantic, but there is fluidity and power once more. There is no wheelchair.
The big guns her neurologist talked about turned out to be a drug called alemtuzumab (used under the trade name Lemtrada), an intravenous infusion originally intended for leukemia patients. Cubitt tried it as part of a clinical trial (it's since been approved in Canada for use with patients who have relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis, a form of the disease characterized by the on-again, off-again symptoms Cubitt experienced.) She got infusions for five straight days in 2011 and then again for three straight days one year later.
She's not cured, she says, but she's most definitely in a much better place. "I had very good results with that. I've had a couple of small relapses, but nothing to the effect of I can't walk. I still have a lot of fatigue, I don't work that much, but my life is way better as far as mobility and things like that. . . . It's certainly changed my life a lot for the better. I didn't have to be in a wheelchair."
Yoga was the other big change in her life. The first time she went to a class she was deep in an MS relapse and couldn't even fill out the registration form.
"I went when I was a complete mess, but I ended up joining a gentle class where they were doing research on people who were doing yoga after chemotherapy. It was very supportive," she says. And for the second time in her life she found an athletic endeavour she could devote herself to completely.
"It sort of surprised me that I liked the truth of the yoga," she says. "(Boxing and yoga) are almost complete opposites. One's very competitive - like, how hardcore can you be. And the other is how much attention you can pay. It's not about being hardcore — that's like the antithesis of it. However, across both there's a huge amount of discipline."
She's comfortable enough now that's she started teaching a class at the Yoga Space in Vancouver, the studio where she found peace. She also now does corporate yoga sessions, travelling to businesses to lead classes for co-workers.
"This will be a world of work — this will take me my whole life — so now I feel like, hey, I'm on to something," she says, her voice nearly giddy with possibility. "I feel like I can be a teacher." That's a sentence her high school teachers would not have expected to hear from the wild child who blew through their classes 20 years ago. The makers of Lemtrada, however, wouldn't be surprised. They've enlisted her to speak to prospective patients and their families about her struggles and triumphs. Her first time out she spoke to a group of 50 people, all of whom were looking for answers to some of the problems Cubitt had already solved. One of her key messages is for people to advocate for themselves, to seek out the best. And if they're too tired, to find someone willing to do it for them.
"Try to accept, try to adapt, try not to settle. See if you can get the best for yourself," she says. "Even though it's really hard to deal with the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, as much as there is fear, there is possibility. A lot has changed, even in this short time that I've been diagnosed."
The other key message is to keep fighting.
"I don't really want to say, 'Oooo, don't give up!'" she says with a laugh while putting on her widest fake smile. "But at the same time, even if you're so tired you can't do it, get someone that can help you, to keep their eyes open and make sure you're getting as much as possible for yourself. It's a project."
Cooke thinks Cubitt might be the perfect person to deliver that message. After all, he saw her get her face knocked in again and again but still come back for more. No matter how much blood was flowing, she always stayed in.
"She was always impressive that way," he says, adding that she's got the personality to inspire people to keep fighting. "I guess you couldn't get a better person to do it."
That is what Cubitt wants, but she also wants to keep it real with people who are facing tough odds.
"I want to inspire, I don't want to pretend that my life is all dandy now," she says. "I don't want people to think 'Oh yeah, there's a frickin cure and everyone's all good."
Two hours after a photographer and reporter arrived at her apartment Cubitt is still beaming, still radiating energy. When asked, however, she admits that the yoga poses she's pulling off and the stories she's spinning will take a toll on her for the rest of the day, and probably the next day as well. She's happy to do it, though, if it will help get her message out. "If I could help inspire people just to hold on, just to wake up, or just to shake up that breakfast drink, I think it's worth it."
Instant? No. This fight will last a lifetime.
May is MS Awareness Month. The Vancouver Scotiabank MS Walk will be held the morning of Sunday, May 24 starting at the Plaza of Nations. To register or donate, visit mssociety.ca.