How ESPYS honoree Kim Clavel left boxing for nursing when coronavirus hit and emerged even stronger

Thirty was barreling toward her like a punishing left hook, and Kim Clavel assessed her life. Her friends were getting married and settling down, with houses and kids and dogs. Clavel rarely stayed home.

Nursing paid the bills, and she worked in a maternity ward in her hometown of Joliette, Quebec. Boxing was her dream, well worth the one-hour one-way commute to train in Montreal. Last August, just before her 29th birthday, she decided to take a one-year sabbatical from nursing to see where boxing could take her.

For the first time, Clavel had nothing else to do but train and fight, and she ate better, ran more and worked her 5-foot-1, 105-pound body into the best shape of her life. She won the North American Boxing Federation female light flyweight title in December and earned her first main event fight at the Montreal Casino, scheduled for March 21.

Ten days before that fight, the coronavirus pandemic wiped it out. She spent a day or two at home in Montreal crying and staring at the floor.

"Then I think about it," she says. "I said, 'OK, I'm young, I'm healthy, I've got arms, I've got legs and I can help. I want to help.'"

Clavel sent out her résumé, and in just a few days, her phone buzzed repeatedly. She was dispatched to several hot-zone long-term care facilities in Montreal, working overnight shifts to care for the elderly in the most desperate throes of the coronavirus pandemic. She wanted to work with aging adults for many reasons: Because of her love of her Grandma Irène. Because of a calling from years ago. But most of all, Clavel did it because she knew they needed the most help.

On Sunday, she will receive the Pat Tillman Award for Service during the 2020 ESPYS (9 p.m. ET, ESPN). Tillman left an NFL career with the Arizona Cardinals to serve in the military after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004.

If there is an upside to one of the darkest springs in recent history, it's that Clavel quickly forgot about the money she lost, the time in the spotlight she missed and the months of preparation that went for naught.

When Clavel peeled off her personal protection equipment, showered and tried to settle in to sleep, she couldn't stop thinking about the night, or the people.

"Dying is a part of life," she says. "The hardest part is not the people who die. The hardest part for me is people who live in that condition ... the people who are alone and maybe [have] one year, two years, six months to live and live alone. That is the hardest part. To see people looking outside a window and waiting. To see people just sitting in a chair.

"Sometimes I ask myself about what they think in their head. To see them alone makes me really, really sad. I love to go into the room, put on some music and talk to them. I put on the TV and we talk about memories and I ask about the name of their child. This is the hardest part for me -- to see them alone waiting for nothing."

COVID-19 has separated dying mothers from daughters, shutting families out of hospitals and long-term care facilities out of fear of contamination. It has also revealed numerous cracks in the long-term health care system in Canada and in the U.S. Two recent reports said that Canada's nursing homes account for more than 80% of the country's COVID-19 deaths.

Late last month, the Canadian Armed Forces, called in to assist some of the hardest-hit facilities, issued a report outlining problems such as cockroach infestations, a lack of PPE and staffing shortages.

Clavel is a replacement nurse, which means she fills in at a handful of different facilities. During the height of the pandemic, she cared for as many as 30 patients on a single shift.

Stephen Golant, a gerontologist from the University of Florida, said nurses such as Clavel have even harder jobs because many of their patients have dementia.

"They're asked to take care of too many occupants at the same time," Golant says of the nursing homes. "The staff-to-resident ratio is pitifully low.

"They're underfunded. ... They're overcrowded. They're often in older digs, so it has all the ingredients to increase the contagion effect."

Because Clavel is single, without children or grandparents or elderly parents in her home, she was highly sought after during Quebec's surge in March and April. She said nurses with children sometimes called out because they were afraid of spreading the virus to their families.

Clavel said she has seen many patients die. She tries to hold their hands in their final moments. But sometimes they die alone, because she's helping another patient who has fallen or is sick, because she's spread far too thin.

Sometimes, Clavel said, patients ring a bell for help with the bathroom, while other people are in respiratory distress. "You're changing one, and the other one just falls," she says, "and you have to manage everything at the same time.

"You run, you run, you run. You don't take a break because you can't take a break. Then the morning comes, you're exhausted, and you give it to the next one.

"It's never enough," she says.

Her shift usually starts at 11:30 p.m. and ends around 7:45 a.m., and Clavel goes home and showers, eats breakfast, then goes on a run or exercises for an hour. And sometimes, she still can't sleep.

For much of the spring, Canada's nursing homes prohibited visitors in an effort to ward off spread from the outside. The dementia and Alzheimer's patients often didn't understand why their families couldn't see them. Because many of the residents didn't have phones, Clavel would call sons and daughters for her patients, who would later forget about the conversations.

Clavel knew she wanted to be a nurse by the time she was 9. It's what her mom did, and Kim tagged along and helped Alzheimer's patients with their meals. She always wanted to help people. But that tiny and compassionate girl also was competitive. In sports, she wanted to beat the boys. When she was 15, out of curiosity, she walked into a boxing club in her hometown of Joliette. She knew she'd found her passion.

"That was a hard part of my life," says Clavel, whose first language is French. "I talked about it with my mother, a single parent and everything. I had some anger inside of me, and my mom brought me to the boxing gym and I just fell in love with that."

Everyone in the gym towered over the 5-foot teenager, and people sized her up and wondered if she was serious. The questions eased after she broke a few noses ... of male sparring partners. After high school, she worked to help support her family and didn't go to college until she was 21.

She made Canada's national team, juggling nursing school and boxing and long commutes. After all that work, Clavel couldn't compete in the Olympics in 2012 (when women's boxing debuted) or '16 because there wasn't a featherweight division.

"When she was an amateur, she was like a ball of energy. She couldn't stop," says her longtime trainer Danielle Bouchard. "She was impressive. She was little. My god, she was 101, 106 pounds at the most. Once she gets in the ring, she only has one speed. She goes for it and she never stops."

Bouchard said the March cancellation devastated Clavel. She'd just gotten a new promoter, and they'd spent money bringing in a sparring partner to prepare for the fight. She was just wrapping up preparations for the fight, and the grueling days of training until she thought she'd vomit were over.

Clavel was 11-0 with two knockouts heading into the main event, but for women's boxing, Bouchard said, it takes time to develop a following, sponsorships and the big name that books a date in Las Vegas.

Bouchard was consoling Clavel on the phone just after the cancellation, and Clavel told her she couldn't stay at home waiting for something. She told her she knew she could make a difference.

In a few months, Bouchard expects Clavel to return to boxing full time. She wants another year to see what can happen.

In the worst days of spring, Clavel stayed until the afternoon, long after her shift was supposed to end, because there weren't enough nurses. She'd sweat profusely in her PPE, and her goggles would fog up and she'd feel helpless. Like so many others affected by COVID-19, she will probably never be the same.

She's working a different shift now, from 3 p.m. to 11, and for the moment, the virus isn't as rampant. Recently, an Alzheimer's patient smiled for her, and it made Clavel's day.

She said that the past three months changed her. She believes it will make her a better boxer. She hasn't been training as much, but she's stronger now.

"My desire to help people is stronger and bigger than my fears," she says. "I forget about myself to help others."

ESPYS senior producer Lauren Griswold contributed to this story.