By Aimee Berg
Virginia Fuchs announced herself to the boxing world at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, where she twice upset Marlen Esparza, a world champion. In 2017, Fuchs went 18-0. In 2018, she claimed a bronze medal at the world championships by attacking her flyweight opponents, on average, every four seconds during nine minutes of boxing.
“That’s an engine!” said Billy Walsh, the head coach for the American team. “She’s a supreme athlete. We joke and call her Seabiscuit because she’s like a racehorse.”
Fuchs, known as Ginny, is now the most established fighter from the United States at the Pan American Games this week. The same will most likely be true at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“Pretty much everybody’s looking at me to win gold,” said Fuchs, a 31-year-old Texan.
Boxing, though, is the least of her battles. About 20 years ago, she learned she had severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. In January, Fuchs had a breakdown that sent her to inpatient treatment for the second time in her life.
She spent a month at an OCD clinic in Houston.
“I was like: I can’t function like this anymore,” she said.
She grew so stuck in her cleaning rituals that she was training daily on three hours of sleep. One night, she said, she couldn’t stop at all and thought: “I’m out of control. I’m scared. I need serious help.”
Elite athletes usually know how to solve their opponents. If they are taller and stronger, be quicker. If they are faster, be smarter. If they are tactically superior, be relentless. But what do you do when the most powerful opponent lies permanently within?
By definition, OCD involves unwanted, recurring and distressing thoughts. In response, people often perform repetitive behaviors, or rituals, to alleviate the anxiety caused by the obsessions.
“But the ritual only works very temporarily,” said Dr. Joyce Davidson, a psychiatrist and medical director at the Menninger Clinic in Houston. “The obsessions keep coming back so people get stuck in this vicious circle of obsessions and rituals. In many cases, it really snowballs.”
OCD symptoms go well beyond superstitions or tics.
“People with OCD are really tormented by their symptoms,” Davidson said. “It’s very disabling.”
OCD takes many forms, and Fuchs’ obsessions and compulsions pertain to contamination and cross-contamination.
“My mind is constantly thinking, ‘What did that touch?’” Fuchs said.
For a boxer, being tormented by the thought of contamination is the ultimate paradox. Fighters are constantly exposed to opponents’ sweat, saliva and blood, and the rot of damp headgear and gloves.
For Fuchs, however, boxing actually provides a respite.
The sport requires such total and immediate focus, she said, that it’s the only setting where she can completely set aside the OCD.
“In day-to-day things, I feel like the OCD is more powerful than my regular mind,” she said, even though she knows it can be expensive, wasteful and infuriating to others.
In January, Fuchs was driving to Walmart three times a day to buy cleaning supplies — at $85 a pop. She is still trying to pay off $23,000 that four weeks at the Houston OCD clinic cost her in February.
“She’ll buy flip-flops, wear them for an hour, and throw them away,” said her mother, Peg, a former elementary schoolteacher. Her older sister, Helen, has found full packages of latex gloves and unopened Kleenex boxes in the trash at home.
Kay Koroma, an assistant coach with the U.S. boxing team, opened the trunk of Fuchs’ car one day and found it filled with supplies that Fuchs said were unusable because they had touched something else.
Before her breakdown, Fuchs’ No. 1 priority was cleaning nonstop. “It made no sense in my clear mind,” she said. “But in my OCD mind, it had to be done or I couldn’t move on with my day.”
Instead of resting in her dorm room between training sessions at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Fuchs bleached all the soles of her shoes (high heels, sandals, trainers), tossed them in the washing machine and ran the machine empty between loads to wash the washer.
Her pre shower cleaning routine took at least an hour and required entire tubs of facial wipes. The shower itself ran three to four hours, and she depleted several large bottles of shower gel and at least one full bar of soap.
Teeth cleaning took at least 30 minutes and as many as nine toothbrushes. Her dentist warned her that it could erode her enamel.
“My OCD doesn’t care,” said Fuchs, a graduate of Louisiana State. “I would rather feel the clean feeling and brush the enamel off my teeth.”
“I’ve ruined so many things,” she added. “I even put my hair straightener in the washing machine.” It’s made of metal.
Her boxing teammates had clues about her OCD but didn’t immediately realize its severity.
Claressa Shields, the two-time Olympic middleweight champion, noticed that when they did push-ups or crunches in the ring, Fuchs put her hand in her sleeve, not on the canvas.
Fuchs would stand on top of her shoes before stepping on the scale at weigh-ins. She never let her gloves or wraps hit the ground. If her mouthpiece fell on the floor, she would leave it there.
Once, Koroma saw Fuchs with six bottles of Clorox. “How much clothes you got to wash?” he said he told her. “You got a lot of whites?”
Another day at the gym, her teammate Mikaela Mayer put her shoe on Fuchs. “Ginny freaked all the way out,” Shields said. “She ran to a shower and we didn’t hear from Ginny for a couple hours.”
Mayer, a 2016 Olympian and Fuchs’ best friend, noticed something was amiss the first time they shared a hotel room. Fuchs wouldn’t get out of the bathroom.
“Within two hours, there was no toilet paper, all the towels are on the floor and dirty,” Mayer said. “She didn’t even shower and all the soap was gone. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I started to spy on her. I would watch her do these routines. I would bust in the door and be like, ‘What did I just see?’”
What people don’t know, Mayer said, is that as soon as Fuchs leaves the gym, she remembers exactly where blood spattered, snot flew and precisely where an armpit touched her shoulder.
“She uses her shower time scrubbing those parts of her body and remembering that,” Mayer said.
Unlike other OCD cases, Fuchs’ cleaning rituals aren’t dictated by a fixed number of repetitions. “It’s a feeling,” she said. “I’m always searching for that perfect clean feeling.”
Yet she is not a neat freak.
Far from it, Mayer said, because Fuchs’ idea of clean is completely different. “To her, it’s not visual; it’s all about germs and contamination,” Mayer explained. “So you’ll walk into her room and there are clothes all over the floor, but it’s a ‘clean’ area.”
Mayer and Koroma are really the only ones who see Fuchs struggle up-close, on a daily basis.
When Koroma sees signs, he tries to keep Fuchs close and distract her with a movie, a walk or a video game. Sometimes, she would call crying in the middle of the night. “Usually I could talk her off the ledge,” he said. But the night she broke down in January, he knew it was serious.
He helped Fuchs pack and took her to the airport, and then he had to tell the team.
“Everybody reached out to her, told her: ‘Yo, we got you. Everything’s cool,’” he said.
USA Boxing now has three psychologists working together to help Fuchs. One is at the Olympic Training Center. One travels with the boxing team. And one is an OCD specialist based in Colorado Springs she can see any time.
Shields, the middleweight champion, remains optimistic that Fuchs will conquer OCD as she has conquered so many of her other opponents.
“Ginny can definitely beat this OCD thing,” Shields said. “She wants to beat it. But just like you won in boxing, you got to get prepared. You got to take steps and make small goals,” she tells Fuchs, reminding her just how strong she is.
In 2016, even though she beat Esparza at the trials, Fuchs didn’t make the Olympic team. Instead she went to Rio de Janeiro as a sparring partner.
“After having all your dreams crushed for another four years, to come support us?” Shields said. “It meant the world to me. Maybe I’ll be that strong one day. Then she went 18-0? Come on! Nobody’s doing that. And she’s facing OCD? That’s amazing.”
For Fuchs, it’s just life.
“There is no cure,” she said. “It’s all about managing it. I’m a little better, but I have a long way to go.”