Boxer's hard road to gold and history books
She has a boxer's story: a troubled childhood, a brother in prison, a father who took up the sport to stay out of trouble yet couldn't watch her fight at the Olympics because of a criminal record of his own.
Claressa Shields walked into the gym around the corner from her house in Flint. Mich., six short years ago, trying to cope with more heartache than an 11-year-old should. As she stood in the corridor of an arena half-a-world away, beads of sweat glistened between her braids, her smile every bit as bright as the gold medal dangling from her neck. The words poured out in torrents.
"I haven't been home a lot. I know I must have a lot of publicity. I might go in history books," she began. "People are going to look at me as an inspiration. ... I'll be able to help my family out. And then I got a gold medal I can wear every day."
"Probably the first year," she replied, pinching it between her fingers to be certain it was still there. "You know, there might be some days where I don't want it to disappear from me. I worked too hard. I really worked too hard for this medal."
Shields paused, trying to catch her breath.
"I can't even explain the pain that I had went through, all the people that I had to deal with and just life - period. There were people who were telling me I couldn't do this. And whenever somebody doubted me, it always makes me push harder. So thank you ... all the haters," she said defiantly. "They kind of helped me."
A few hundred yards away, out in the concourse of the ExCel arena, Shields' trainer, Jason Crutchfield, wore a pressed white shirt and a visor that read "Flint." He scanned the crowd for signs of his star pupil. Berston's gym back in Flint isn't exactly a hotbed of the sport, which is just the beginning of the explanation of why Crutchfield wasn't accorded a credential giving him access to the fighters' tunnel and the rest of the backstage.
But he and assistant Ed Kendall weren't complaining. They wouldn't have had the money to make the trip at all if folks back home hadn't passed the hat at fundraisers and churches throughout the neighbourhood. But hard times were the last thing on Crutchfield's mind.
He was still replaying how Shields dismantled her bigger, much slower opponent, Russian middleweight Nadezda Torlopova, with a highlight reel's worth of moves copied from her boxing idols. At one juncture, Shields hid everything but her bad intentions, covering her face with her gloves in a classic "peek-a-boo" defense, then dropped both hands to her waist and dared the Russian to come after her.
At another, she shuffled like Muhammad Ali - who was known as Cassius Clay when he won his gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics - though Shields' favorite fighter growing up was the equally elegant Sugar Ray Robinson. Yet it was her grit more than her grace that first registered with Crutchfield. He knew the family history, and how much Shields wanted to be like her father, Clarence, whose ambitions of becoming a prize fighter were derailed more than once by jail time.
"She turned that into fuel. ... Her determination was just out of this world to do something. To ... do ... something," he said slowly.
"And she caught on real quick. Being an 11 year-old girl, she was catching on quicker than the boys. That's what really astounded me," Crutchfield added. "I was like, 'O-o-o-o-o-h-h-h-h.'"
Her fights became events back in Flint. As many as 70 people, including Clarence Shields and other family members, gathered in a local restaurant to watch the Olympic bout. Back in the athletes village, her teammates tuning in felt almost as invested. London marked the first time the American men competed at an Olympics without winning a single medal; in addition to Shields' gold, teammate Marlen Esparza won bronze in the flyweight division.
She said her teammates made it feel more like an honor to compete than a burden.
"Whenever I got back from a fight, they were just wishing me the best. ... 'Girl, you cut up!' ... I don't think anybody would feel bad about me representing them. I think I did a pretty good job," she said.
Shields called her father before every fight, yet she was in no hurry to do it Thursday night, after the biggest fight of her life.
"I called him early today. He watched. He knows. He's probably crying," she said.
Shields is committed to a "Today" show appearance Friday morning, and who knows what after that. Women's boxing made its Olympic debut, and her live-wire personality has "star" written all over it. She and Crutchfield will sit down at some point and decide whether Shields will defend her title at the 2016 Rio Games or go pro.
"I haven't been able to think past August 9th, today. So me having passed that day is kind of like, 'I don't know what's going to happen. I'm going to go wherever the wind blows me," she said with a giggle, looking at that moment exactly like what she was - a high school junior watching a world of possibilities unfolding in the distance.
"This was something I wanted for a long time, even when boxing wasn't going all right, even when my life wasn't going all right. All I wanted was a gold medal, and I kept working towards it, even when people were saying I couldn't do it, I'm too young, or there were girls who were going to beat me because of better experience, more experience," Shields said, mustering one more satisfied smile, "and I proved them all wrong."
Yes, you did.