From the boxing ring to the big, wide world, Harry Garside is ready for anything.
Words by BEN MCKELVEY
“If someone tells me there’s something I can’t do or won’t do, I never take them at face value. I wonder why I can’t do it; I wonder if there are any good reasons why I shouldn’t. And it probably makes me want to do it more.” These may sound like the standard bromides of a professional athlete talking about his sporting career, but Harry Garside, the Olympic boxer who won Australia’s first boxing medal since the ’80s at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games, doesn’t only apply this attitude to his boxing career – he applies it to everything from his outlooks on masculinity and fashion to his views on relationships and class; pretty much everything in his life. “At the end of the day, fear is just another emotion to be embraced,” says Garside.
This attitude explains why Garside pulls boxing gloves off after a bout to reveal colourful nail polish, and it’s why, in the lead-up to the Olympics, he became known for his ballet training. It’s also why the images you’re looking at are so damn fun – indeed, he was the one who suggested wearing a skirt for this shoot, and who fell in love with the off-kilter, non-conventional pairings (Birkenstocks with a blazer; slides with suiting) seen here. Most importantly, however, Garside says this attitude is why he’s the man he is: relentlessly positive, funny, happy, confident and not afraid to tell the people he loves that he loves them.
But Garside wasn’t always like this. There was a childhood to untangle (something he’s doing with the help of a psychologist). There have been emotional walls that needed busting down, and a lexicon of modern manhood that needed learning. This journey of growth, maturity and courage, he says, started in 2013, when The Reach Foundation, a youth organisation co-founded by AFL legend Jim Stynes, came to his high school for a workshop. The foundation was designed to create confidence and self-awareness in youth; cutting through all the incessant collateral that collects in a teenager’s mind, allowing them to see themselves for who they really are, and all they really can achieve. But as Garside discovered, The Reach Foundation, like most programs that require self-growth and self-evolving, can only really change its participants for the better when they themselves are ready to step up and make that change.
“If someone tells me there’s something I can’t do or won’t do, I never take them at face value. I wonder why I can’t do it; I wonder if there are any good reasons why I shouldn’t. And it probably makes me want to do it more.”
Harry Garside on defying expectations.
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Garside started boxing at age nine. The son of a roof-tiler father, and a mother who worked as a psychic and medium, he was the youngest of three boys. “My brothers loved to fight and my dad grew up rough around the edges, in England,” he says. “To be honest, I felt nothing like the males – [I was] much closer to Mum’s energy – but I wanted to fit in.” He started boxing, he says, “to get respect from my brothers and father”. Nine-year-old Garside lucked into the right gym (Lilydale Community Youth Club) and the right trainer (Brian Levier, who still trains Garside), and as he trained, he started to understand the vast differences between boxing and fighting. Fighting is about aggression, ego and dominance; boxing is about control, clarity and truth. “Boxing is one of the most intimate places we can be, outside of sex,” says Garside. “Locked in a cage with an opponent wanting to hurt you and you him, but there’s no malice? That’s an amazing thing.”
Garside felt confident in the ring and in the gym, but he was no child prodigy. As a teen, he wasn’t a boxing phenom by any stretch of the imagination, and as a junior amateur, he lost more than he won. But even as his losses mounted, the affirmations in the gym continued, with Levier telling Garside he had the makings of a winner, and the footwork of a champion. Despite this, however, that sporting confidence never migrated into the rest of his young life. “I never felt good enough,” he says. “When I was younger, I felt like people trashed my family; whether true or not, that’s how I felt. We’d go to the footy club and I thought people were laughing at my dad – I wore hand-me-downs and he wore tradie clothes and I thought people looked past us.”
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So, as Garside entered high school, he had two lives: one at school and one at the boxing gym. At school, he was trying to live up to his expectation as a “Garside boy” – to emulate the behaviour and attitudes of his older brothers. In the gym, positivity ruled alongside discipline, hope and togetherness. Then, on that consequential day in 2013, when the Reach Foundation visited his school, Harry Garside’s two lives merged. As the organisation conducted its workshop, they began an exercise requiring partners to stare into each other’s eyes without saying anything. With an odd number of participants in their class, Garside was paired with a Reach Foundation volunteer. “Because I was partnered with someone from Reach, I couldn’t take the piss,” says Garside. “We started [the exercise] and it was like he was looking into my soul but also that he had my back. I didn’t know him – I never knew him – but I trusted him.”
“Whatever you want to do, do that. You don’t have to explain it. As long as it fills your cup, that’s all that matters.”
Harry Garside on following his dreams.
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Garside later revealed things to his friends that he’d never told them before; off came the protective cloak of cynicism, hidden fears and bluster he’d been wearing – the one that separated his life as a teenager from his life at the gym. He explained about the addiction and mental health issues one of his brothers had experienced. He talked about his own suffering and fear. That day, he also painted his nails and said that one day, he was going to be a champion. Seven years later, in 2020, 23-year-old Garside went to the Tokyo Olympics. He’s since turned pro and has, so far, maintained a record of 1-0, with one knockout. Admittedly, that record is only one fight old, but that fight was against an opponent with nine professional wins and just one loss – and Garside dismantled him in the first round. He is well on the road to becoming an Australian – if not world – champion in the highly competitive lightweight division.
Most importantly, though, his successes haven’t only been in the ring. Boxing is Garside’s dream, but a future in the sport is as difficult to predict as Melbourne weather. But whether wins or losses come, he says, he is moving forward as himself, without fear of failure or judgement. “Whatever you want to do, do that,” says Garside. “You don’t have to explain it. As long as it fills your cup, that’s all that matters.”