Anna Farrant has a distinct presence about her.
She definitely has a hardened exterior—no doubt from her past of working in harm-reduction in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and of dealing with her own substance abuse issues—but at the same time she has a soft side, an innate openness that should not be confused as weakness. Because after spending a bit of time with Farrant, it becomes clear that strength is her virtue.
The co-founder of Vancouver’s All-City Athletics, an underground boxing gym located in an alleyway in Gastown, has formed a career on building strength. There’s the literal side of it, of course, which she does through All-City’s addictive, fast-paced boxing classes that combine technique with quick circuits and thumping music—but there’s also the mental and emotional strength, which she has been honing for far longer.
“I had substance abuse problem from the age of 14 to 21,” the Vancouver Island native says over coffee at Prado Cafe down the street from All-City. “I went to Vancouver Film School and made it three months, then I fell down a flight of stairs wasted and broke my leg in half. I had to be in a wheelchair, but I was still in denial. And then when I came out of the wheelchair, I had a metal rod in my leg—and that’s when I had an intervention in Vancouver and ended up in treatment on the island.”
It was her personal struggles with alcohol and drugs that led Farrant to begin working with marginalized communities in the Downtown Eastside, specifically at a groundbreaking safe-injection facility called Insite. “It was the only interview I’ve ever had where my substance abuse was an asset,” she jokes. But in truth, being able to relate to the people she was helping undoubtedly made it easier to connect with them, and have them trust her. Still, despite feeling like the work she was doing was a “true calling,” it began to take its toll.
“I don’t know if I would have been able at the time to articulate it, but when you’re absorbing that type of energy on a day-to-day basis—I was literally spending eight to 10 hours a day around people that were high or in psychosis, or in a lot of trauma—so just experiencing that transference of energy was obviously overwhelming,” she reflects. “It stays in your body. That [working] sector is generally underserved in terms of debriefing and self-care, especially back then. So I was just looking for something to do before I would go to work that would help me get more centred.”
And though she admits she was “a bit of a scrapper” when she was growing up, boxing had never occurred to her—that is, until a friend started training at the Astoria nearby and she decided she might as well try it out. Punching things as a form of therapy? Who wouldn’t want to give that a go?
“I started training there, had my first fight there,” Farrant says of the Astoria. “They just threw you in just to see how you handle it, so I got beaten up quite a bit there. I busted my nose on my first fight. Flattened.” But she was hooked.
Keeping up boxing on the side while working her day job (by this point she was working for local businessman Mark Brand on his community initiatives) led Farrant to meet Jordan Bowers. They began exercising and leading outdoor workouts together, floating the idea of becoming certified trainers and turning their shared love of boxing into a full-fledged business; but it wasn’t until a phone call with a spiritual medium that Farrant knew it was time to take All-City all the way.
“My friend had passed away, and somebody gave me this gift to speak to this medium, who has a show on CMT,” Farrant says. “I get on the phone with her and she’s like, ‘It’s so weird, I feel like you’re going to retire this year.’ I was like, ‘That’s ridiculous, I have a job,’ and she was like, ‘No, you’re going to retire from what you do, and work will no longer seem like work for you.’ I was like, ‘I gotta just do it.’ So it was the catalyst through that reading to quit my job, which was the best thing ever.”
Farrant and Bowers started by renting space from another gym, but they eventually found their current facility—which is totally theirs—about two years ago. With dark lighting, painted murals on the walls, and showers with high-end amenities, it’s the perfect mix of contemporary wellness facility and gritty urban gym. “We wanted it to feel like a New York, prohibition-style vibe and have that tangible feeling to it,” explains Farrant, “but with nice-smelling diffusers and towels and stuff that people want for a proper gym facility.” That means it’s comfortable and it’s clean, but it’s also got serious backbone.
Of course, having this complete and total control of a company comes with its share of hard work. “When you own a business, you do everything. I’m teaching, I’m hiring, I’m training, I’m cleaning the bathrooms, I’m invoicing, I’m Instagramming,” she says. “You don’t actually get to step back and ask, ‘How do I grow my business?’ Because you’re so involved in all the day-to-day operations of it. It’s only been in the last six months that I’ve been able to peel myself back, because now we have seven instructors and I love them, we have a studio manager, reliable front desk people—to the point that I can actually step back and ask, ‘What do I want this to look like?’”
And she’s not stopping there. Aside from keeping up at All-City, Farrant is also the second vice-president for Boxing BC (the province’s amateur boxing governing body) and just launched a new company, Alliance Boxing Promotions, to put on matches around the Lower Mainland. It’s all about making boxing more accessible, and more fun. “It gives you an appreciation for what the sport does for people—all walks of life,” says Farrant. “You never know who’s going to fall in love with boxing.”
UPDATE, May 2021: Anna Farrant has left All-City.