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The Heat: Single mother, champion fighter

Heather Hardy has never lost a professional fight, but she knows what it’s like to get knocked down.

When Superstorm Sandy hit New York in October, she was still recovering from losing her home in a fire a few months earlier. She and her daughter were living with her parents in southeast Brooklyn, where they watched the floodwaters swell to 7 feet.

“I’ve had my share of struggles throughout the years,” Hardy says. “But rather than use them as an excuse … they have propelled me and motivated me to go on to bigger and better things.”

As an amateur boxer, she earned the nickname “The Heat” and became a national champion in 2011. Now the 31-year-old is undefeated after four professional matches and gearing up for another fight in April.

Photographer Sara Forrest has been documenting Hardy’s daily routine since the two met last year. Forrest says she can relate to the focus and determination that pushes Hardy to overcome all the obstacles that have been thrown at her.

It’s the same mentality Forrest had as a ballet dancer for nearly two decades. It’s how she feels now about her career in photography.

“I know all too well what it’s like to be obsessed with what you do,” she says. “From the minute I met her, I felt that I knew how she worked.”

Hardy remembers the first time she stepped into Gleason’s Gym, a legendary training ground for world champion boxers such as Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.

It was three years ago. She was going through a rough divorce and had stopped working out after taking on five jobs to make ends meet. But she felt like she had to return to the ring.

“I couldn't breathe without boxing,” Hardy says. “I needed some stability back, and I knew I needed to find time to squeeze it in.”

She caught the attention of coach Devon Cormack, who soon told her to quit her other jobs and become his assistant in between training sessions. She credits him for helping her get back on her feet.

Starting out, Hardy lost her first two amateur fights. Her second letdown was a pivotal moment in her career. She recalls looking to Cormack with tears in her eyes.

“I told him I didn’t want to lose anymore,” she says. “I vowed to do anything he said. … We’ve been an unstoppable force ever since.”

Waking up around 4:30 most mornings, Hardy takes a bus and two trains to get to the gym. Sometimes she’s there for more than 14 hours.

Throughout the day she teaches clients, works on her own strength and conditioning, and helps set up local matches. On weekends, she also coaches inner-city youth who take part in Gleason’s “Give a Kid a Dream” program.

After being displaced by Sandy, Hardy is back to sleeping on her mother’s couch. She says she has been living out of her gym bags for eight months while saving up for her own place.

Because of her busy schedule and long commute, her family often takes care of her 8-year-old daughter, Annie. Hardy admits taking risks and making sacrifices but says boxing has given her a new sense of purpose.

“I felt like I had something to offer, and before boxing I just didn't know what it was,” she says. “To me, the saddest thing I can think of in life is living without passion.”

But not everyone understands or agrees with what she does.

Boxing has traditionally been seen as a male sport. It was the only summer event at the Olympics without a female counterpart until the 2012 Games in London. And in the professional circuit, women still make far less money than men.

Hardy says that won’t stop her from pursuing what she loves. She says she hopes that one day the choices she has made inspire her daughter.

“I want that little girl to look at me and see that through hard work, perseverance and dedication anything can be achieved,” she says. “I really just want her to be happy.”

When Forrest attended Hardy’s fight at the Resorts World Casino in December, she watched her get ready behind the scenes and listened to the crowd roar when she took the stage.

Then she witnessed Hardy defeat her opponent in a four-round unanimous decision.

“You understood that she was totally in her element,” Forrest says. “You understood that her sacrifices made for those moments in the ring are all worth it because she is doing what she is really meant to be doing and making it work.”

- Brett Roegiers, CNN

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