As COVID-19 began to ravage North America, Canadian boxer Kim Clavel’s first main-event fight, scheduled for March 21 in Montreal, was canceled. Clavel had taken a leave from nursing to focus full time on her fighting career. A huge opportunity had slipped away. She felt destroyed.

What next? She soon found out. Canada desperately needed nurses to care for elderly patients fighting COVID-19. On March 21, instead of entering the ring, she began work in a Montreal nursing home. “Same night,” Clavel says. “Different fight.”

An undefeated light-flyweight champion, Clavel, 30, worked 16-hour shifts at times during the peak of the pandemic, treating as many as 30 patients at once in Montreal. Many of them were suffering and confused about why they couldn’t see their loved ones. She ended shifts in tears. “You have to hold their hands, you are with them in their last breaths,” Clavel says. “The only thing you can do is tell them everything will be all right.”

Kim Clavel (Alexi Hobbs for TIME)
Kim Clavel
Alexi Hobbs for TIME

Over three months, Clavel worked in 11 different hospitals and nursing homes. Conditions in some of the government-funded facilities, Clavel says, were poor; they were understaffed. Some rooms lacked air-conditioning. “We have to take care of our elderly,” she says. In June, at the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Awards, better known as the ESPYs, Clavel won the Pat Tillman Award for Service.

Clavel, who grew up in Joliette, a small city north of Montreal, started boxing when she was 15. After her first lesson, she told the coach she wanted to be a champion. “He laughed,” says Clavel. “He looked at me and said, ‘Little girl, calm down. You have to train first and we will see.’” Eight months later, she won a Quebec title.

“Boxing doesn’t have limits,” she says from a gym in Montreal, where she’s training. “It makes me feel alive.” She returned to the ring in July, when she defeated American Natalie Gonzalez in Las Vegas. Clavel is once again focused on boxing full time; she hopes to fight again by the end of the year and continue to raise the profile of women’s boxing.

But she plans to put her scrubs back on at some point. Clavel wants to earn an advanced degree, so she can write prescriptions and work even more closely with doctors. “To be a nurse, you change lives, you change the world,” says Clavel. “Even if conditions are really hard, they never quit. Nurses are the army of health.”

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