For Olympic Boxer Claressa Shields, Round 2 Brings New Expectations

Jul 27, 2016
Originally published on July 27, 2016 6:47 pm

Claressa Shields will be back in the ring Aug. 17 to defend her Olympic gold medal. The 2012 Olympics in London were the first time women were allowed to box in the Games and the 17-year-old high school student from Flint, Mich., made history.

But winning a gold medal didn't change her life as much as she thought it would.

As an independent journalist and filmmaker, I've been following Claressa for the past five years. When I first met Claressa in 2011, I was in a dimly lit auditorium in Toledo, Ohio, photographing the women who were trying to become the first to box in the Olympics. A teenage girl with short hair, thick biceps and a determined stare entered the ring — it was her first fight against adult women.

Shields, who is 5-foot-10 and fights at 165 pounds, dispatched her opponent before the end of the first round.

Claressa had been training in the basement of a small neighborhood gym in Flint, one of the most dangerous cities in the country. Few people had ever seen her fight. Less than a year after I first saw her, there she was in London with a gold medal around her neck.

"I just remember being on the podium and I'm like, 'Holy crap! This medal is huge,' " she told me last month. "And it was so heavy. And when he put it on, I just held [it] and looked and I thought I was about to go crazy. I wanted to jump down and run around the ring, and jump on the ropes and put my hands in the air holding the medal. Just shaking and laughing. It was like someone handed me a million dollars and said, 'Here you go.' "

Claressa slept with the gold medal, its ribbon wrapped around her wrist, for weeks. After years working toward this goal, she'd achieved it.

But just days after the Olympics ended, Claressa remembers sitting in her coach's living room back in Flint and thinking: Now what?

"You know, I guess, I've won the Olympic gold medal and I don't know what to think about now," she told me. "I don't know what to dream about. That was my dream for years. I was literally going to sleep and I would see all black, like I wasn't able to dream. My dream had been accomplished. What do I do now?"

Soon she was back in high school, living with her coach because things were too unstable at home. Her mother has long struggled with addiction.

As a member of the U.S. national boxing team, Claressa received a stipend of $1,000 a month. But those earnings were going to pay her mom's water bill and helping her older brother, who was in prison.

"Everybody was saying, 'You should be signed with Nike, you should be on a Wheaties box, how come you aren't in this magazine?' It got to the point where I just shut everybody out. I can't hear that anymore. I really can't dwell on what I didn't get," she told me.

Why didn't any of those things happen?

"I don't know why it didn't happen," she said. "I take it as I wasn't ready for it, I guess. I wasn't the ideal woman. I wasn't the pretty girl who wears her hair straight. I don't know. I guess I wasn't what they were looking for."

A few months after the London Games, Claressa was back on the amateur circuit. At her first tournament, Claressa and her coach met with USA Boxing officials about a PR strategy. The officials had one suggestion: Claressa should stop talking about how she likes to beat people up.

"You want me to stop saying that?" Claressa asked the boxing officials. "Why?"

Julie Goldsticker, a USA Boxing PR consultant at the meeting, offered some advice on attracting endorsements.

"I box," said Claressa.

"I understand that," Goldsticker replied.

"It's an image thing," Jason Cruthchfield, Claressa's coach, explained. "Just tone it down a little bit."

Claressa wouldn't budge.

"Their definition of a woman — you can be tough, but not too tough," she told me when we spoke recently. "If I want to get in there and kick a girl's ass, I'm going to kick her ass. That's it. You might as well have told me to start punching my opponents a little softer so girls won't feel so threatened."

It's one thing for a girl to fight — but to admit that you like it makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

Until 2012, boxing was the last male-only sport in the Olympics. Having women in the ring is a stretch for advertisers and promoters – even for many fans. Claressa's own father, Clarence Shields, had trouble with it. And he was a boxer.

Clarence was locked up for most of Claressa's childhood, in prison for robbery. These days, he's supportive of her boxing career, but it wasn't always that way.

He and his daughter first talked about boxing when she was 11. He told her it was too bad he didn't have any sons to train.

"Maybe you could live your dreams through me a bit," Claressa told him.

A week later, she asked her dad if she could box. "And my answer was, 'Hell, no,'" Clarence said.

"Do you remember the exact words? You said boxing is a man's sport and that made me so mad."

"And you should have taken it that way. That was a chauvinist statement, that a girl can't do it."

"I've been at it ever since. I'm still proving people wrong."

"Truth be known, little mama, you are awesome."

Proving people wrong is one of Claressa's biggest motivations. Now 21, her record is 74 wins and one loss. That single loss was four years ago.

Her goal is to be unstoppable, because that's what will make people respect and pay attention to women's boxing. And to her.

To focus on training for Rio, Claressa moved last year to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. She's gotten away from the chaos and stress of life in Flint. She's seen a bigger world. And that's what she also wants for her mom and younger sister and brother.

"So now, after this Olympics, I want to move my family to Florida or a better place where they can be safer and make a living," she told me. "I want my family to see things I've seen."

This time around, it's about more than winning a gold medal. Claressa wants to follow in the footsteps of another young, black Olympic boxer who redefined beauty and power both in and out of the ring.

And like Muhammad Ali, Claressa's fight for recognition is both personal and political. She wants to make the world embrace her power and aggression.

"In Rio, what's going to happen [is] everybody's going to be talking about that girl, Claressa Shields, can fight," she says. "I know for a fact I'm gonna win the Olympics again. I know already. I'm just telling you what is going to happen. I'm going to win. Period."


Sue Jaye Johnson is the producer of T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold, a film about Claressa Shields premiering Aug. 2 on PBS Independent Lens. She co-produced for Radio Diaries Claressa's fight to make it to the 2012 Olympics and has been chronicling her life ever since. You can listen to Claressa's 2012 audio diary on the Radio Diaries Podcast.

The radio version of this online story was produced by Joe Richman and Nellie Gilles of Radio Diaries.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Winning an Olympic gold medal can be a financial life changer, but, for many athletes, the reality is different. U.S. boxer Claressa Shields knows that reality. We first met Claressa on this program four years ago. Back then, she was a high school student from Flint, Mich., with a big goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO DIARY)

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I have this dream. I'm in England, London, and it's the finals in the Olympics. I can hear the announcer. I mean, they're going to say, like, and the first woman Olympian at 165 pounds is Claressa Shields. And in my dream, I'm looking around, and I'm just thinking to myself like how did I get here?

SIEGEL: Claressa was 17 when she recorded that. Our partner, Radio Diaries, had given her a tape recorder as she fought to make it to the 2012 Olympics in London. It was the first time women were allowed to box in the games, and Claressa Shields made history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ladies and gentlemen, the winner by a score of 19 points to 12 and Olympic gold medalist in the red corner representing the United States of America, Claressa Shields.

SIEGEL: Well, now another summer Olympics is just over a week away in Rio. Producer Sue Jaye Johnson says Shields has a different view going into these games. She's been following the boxer for the past four years, and she brings us this update.

SUE JAYE, BYLINE: When I first met Claressa, I was in a dimly lit auditorium in Toledo, Ohio, photographing the women who were trying to be the first to box in the Olympics. A quiet teenage girl with short hair, thick biceps and a determined stare entered the ring. It was her first fight against adult women.

I hadn't seen anyone fight so fiercely, so unrestrained. She dispatched her opponent before the end of the first round. Claressa had been training in the basement of a small neighborhood gym in Flint, one of the most dangerous cities in the country. Few people had seen her fight. Less than a year later, she was in London with a gold medal around her neck.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I just remember being on the podium and I'm like - this medal was huge, and it was so heavy. And when he put it on, I just held it and looked at it and was like - I thought I was about to go crazy.

I wanted to jump down and run around the ring and jump on the ropes and put my hands in the air holding the gold medal just shaking and laughing. And it was like somebody handed me a million dollars and said, here you go.

JOHNSON: Claressa slept with the gold medal wrapped around her wrist for weeks. After years working toward the singular goal, she'd achieved it. But just days after the Olympics, Claressa remembered sitting on her coach's living room and thinking, now what?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: You know, I guess I've won the Olympic gold medal, and I don't even know what to think about now. You know, I don't even know what to dream about. That was my dream for years. You know, I was literally going to sleep, and I would see a lot of black. Like, I wasn't able to dream because my dream had been accomplished. Now I'm like, what do I do now?

JOHNSON: There she was back in high school, living with her coach because it was too unstable at home. Claressa was getting a thousand dollars a month as a member of the U.S. national boxing team. But those earnings were going to help her family, pay her mom's water bill, help her brother in prison.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Everybody was just saying, you know, you should be signing with Nike. You should be on the Wheaties box. How come - aren't you in this magazine? Why aren't you in that magazine? And it got to the point where I just kind of shut everybody out and was like I can't hear that no more. I really can't dwell on what I didn't get, you know?

JOHNSON: Why didn't any of those things happen? Why no endorsements? Why no money? Why no sponsorship?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I don't know. I don't know why it didn't happen. I was just kind of taking it as I wasn't ready for it, I guess. You know, just like the ideal woman - I wasn't. I wasn't the pretty girl, you know, who wears their hair straight, and I don't know. I just know that that wasn't - I guess I wasn't what they were looking for.

JOHNSON: After one tournament, Claressa and her coach met with USA Boxing officials about a PR strategy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I know you're trying to get sponsorships and endorsements, etc.

JOHNSON: They had one suggestion. Claressa should stop talking about how she likes to beat people up.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: You want me to stop saying that?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes. Stop saying that.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Why?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When it comes to somebody wanting to get behind me and say I want this person to represent my brand...

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I box.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I understand that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Right, right. I understand what she's saying.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You understand what I'm saying.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's like an image thing - just kind of tone it down a little bit.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Their definition of a woman, you know - you can be tough, but not too tough. And it's like if I want to get in there and kick a girl's ass, I'm going to kick her ass. That's it. You might as well had told me to start punching my opponents a little bit softer when I fight them, so people won't feel so threatened.

JOHNSON: It's one thing for a girl to fight, but to admit that you like it - that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Until 2012, boxing was the last male-only sport in the Olympics. Women in the ring - it's a stretch for advertisers and promoters and even many fans. Even Claressa's own father had trouble with it, and he was a boxer.

Her dad had been in prison most of her childhood. In her radio diary, Claressa and her dad remember when she was 11 and they first talked about boxing. He told her it was too bad he didn't have any sons to train.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO DIARY)

CLARESSA SHIELDS: So I was like, OK, maybe you can kind of, like, live your dream through me a little bit.

CLARENCE SHIELDS: And about a week later, you know, you asked me, could you box? And my answer was, hell no.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Do you remember the exact words that you said? You said boxing is a man's sport. That made me so - it made me so mad.

CLARENCE SHIELDS: And you should have took it that way. That was a chauvinist statement, that a girl can't do it. So, you know, you was right.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: And I've been at it ever since. I'm still proving people wrong.

CLARENCE SHIELDS: Truth be known. I just think, little mama, you are awesome.

JOHNSON: Proving people wrong - it's one of Claressa's biggest motivations. Right now, her record is 74-1. She hasn't lost in four years. Her goal is to be unstoppable, undeniable because that's what will make people respect and pay attention to women's boxing and her.

To focus on the Summer Games in Rio, last year Claressa moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. She's gotten away from the chaos and stress of life in Flint. She's seen a bigger world, and that's what she wants for her mom and younger brother and sister.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Well, after this Olympics, I want to move my family to Florida or to a better place, you know, where they can be safer and where they can make a living for themselves. I want my family to see the things that I've seen, and I want to see how they feel about it.

JOHNSON: This time around, it's about more than a gold medal. Claressa wants to follow in the footsteps of another young black Olympic boxer who redefined beauty and power both in and out of the ring. And, like Muhammad Ali, Claressa's pretty confident.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: In Rio, the way that I see what's going to happen is everybody's going to be talking about that girl Claressa Shields can fight.

JOHNSON: You're pretty sure you're going to win?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I know for a fact I'm going to win the Olympics again. I just - I know already. I just - I'm just telling you what's going to happen. I'm going to win, period.

JOHNSON: On August 17, Claressa will be back in the ring to defend her Olympic gold medal. For NPR, I'm Sue Jaye Johnson.

SIEGEL: Sue Jaye Johnson is the producer of "T-Rex," a film about Claressa which airs on PBS's Independent Lens next week. You can hear Claressa's original audio diary on Radio Diaries' podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.