DETROIT — Claressa Shields is not devoid of confidence by any means. The accomplished young boxer, now a two-time Olympic champion, is only 21 years old, but already she’s done what no other U.S. boxer has: win back-to-back gold medals. She’s in unique territory as her career faces the unknown, but by making history she hopes to reach beyond the boxing world and give people hope and a new perspective.
Hailing from Flint, Mich., Shields was the first in her family to graduate high school. She bucked the stereotypes that accompanied growing up in the poverty-stricken city (42 percent of the population lives below the poverty line): where going to college or making something of yourself was an unachievable dream. Upon graduation, she took it one step further and enrolled in Olivet College while she continued to train.
By taking home Olympic gold in 2012, Shields made history by becoming the first U.S. woman ever to win a gold medal at the Summer Games. She did the impossible by proving not only could she hold her own in the ring, but that despite the odds in her hometown, it was possible to succeed. But she wanted more, and it set the bar high not only in boxing, but for anyone in Flint who looks to her as a symbol of hope.
The day before her first fight at Rio, Shields didn’t eat. With the pressure of certain expectations, it slipped her mind as distractions set in. As a result, her performance suffered. But she regained her focus, ate properly, and got plenty of sleep. And then, she made history.
But even as she went into the Rio Olympics as the favorite in middleweight boxing — and knowing that full-well — what she was hoping to accomplish was no small task, even at the Olympic level.
In the end, it was Shields with her effervescent confidence, who made history. Defying all odds from her childhood and within the male-dominant boxing world, she has now become a celebrity. Now, she’s presented with a blank page and a multitude of options — and for a first in quite a while, time on her hands.
No longer is Shields looking to the amateur level for stature in boxing. Women’s professional boxing has yet to receive the same recognition as with the men, and there is an aversion to females fighting at a professional level — or at all in some circles. As such, women cannot currently compete interchangeably at the professional and amateur level. As to her immediate future, though, those plans are up in the air.
"I've been getting a lot of calls about going professional," she said at Comerica Park, after throwing out the first pitch at the Tigers' game against the Twins. "And then I've been getting a lot of calls about staying for another Olympic gold medal. And right now, in the amateurs, I'm treated like a queen, basically. But as far as in professional boxing, they're still building up women's boxing.
"I'm just weighing my options right now, so I don't know what's going to happen. But if I had it my way I would have the best of both worlds, because a professional man can fight at amateurs."
The one thing Shields hasn’t done since returning from Rio, is train. She’s been spending time with family and friends, enjoying the down time that so rarely accompanies professional athletes. And she has no hesitation with acknowledging (and enjoying) the fame she’s acquired — across the country, but specifically within her home state of Michigan.
It’s been a refreshing experience for Shields, who a year and a half ago left Flint to train in Colorado Springs, Colo. With the financial instability in Flint and a rocky situation at home, she could no longer juggle both situations. Still, the decision to leave was a difficult one, and she nearly gave up.
"I don't really like to get into my feelings and my emotions and everything," Shields said. "But when I first moved away, it was pretty hard. The first two months was a little different. I was real sad. I was still training and everything, but I just wanted to go home. It took every bone in my body not to get a plane ticket, just to come home and train here (in Flint)."
After being devoid of a trainer six months prior to her move and her first-ever loss at the 2014 World Championships, Shields was met with the challenge of adapting to a new style of coaching, a new training center, and a strange city. At 19 years old, that’s difficult for anyone, much less an athlete with the expectations of a nation on her shoulders. But she stuck it out, and improved her edge in boxing leading up to the 2016 Summer Games.
Rio was, understandably, huge. Both for Shields on a personal level, but also for the history books. She’s become "a pretty big deal" especially in the city of Flint. Pictures and signings are part of her life, but she’s taken every opportunity to oblige fans’ requests. The level of respect she’s garnered in boxing and at home has opened new doors for her, an opportunity she wants to pass on to others.
Rather than shy away from her hometown struggles, though, Shields is choosing to be proactive. For such a dangerous city — in 2013 Flint was the most violent city per capita for the third straight year, though in 2016 the numbers have declined somewhat — she still sees opportunity. Beyond that, she sees a chance to shed some light on Flint’s problems — be it the ongoing water crisis, poverty, or crime rate. If she could do it, so can others.
"I just hope that it gives those kids in Flint some hope," she said. "Because, with the water crisis and everything going on, a lot of them feel like ‘we can’t even get clean water here, we’re already going through a lot.’ And the school system needs to be cleaned out and redone. But just with that, a lot of kids feel like they can’t make it, and that Flint is so dark.
"In spite of all the darkness, they need to see that there’s a little bit of light, and I’m that little bit of light that they see. I hope that I can give them hope, and that they can strive to be the best at whatever they want to do."