Claressa Shields is the two-time Olympic gold medal winner. The first American boxer to do so. She surprised the world at 17 to capture the championship in London. At 21, she was the heavy favorite in Rio. The middleweight made a statement right away as her opening fight was stopped at the end of the third by way of TKO. Shields dominated her division on her way to back-to-back gold medals. As impressive as that accomplishment is, Shields’ story is so much broader and more remarkable than anything she’s done in the ring.
Claressa Shields has been battle tested in life. Growing up in Flint, Michigan, presented challenges that would break the spirit of an ordinary person.
Shields is the daughter of a former boxer who spent much of her childhood in prison, and a mother who struggled with drugs and alcohol. She was shuttled between 11 homes by the time she was 12. To put it mildly, her life has been complicated.
She had to grow up fast and took it upon herself to look after her two siblings. That too was complicated. She was raped by a family member when she was five, and daily by her younger brother’s father for a time before she turned eight.
She was eventually taken in by her grandmother. Shields also found herself living with her former coach Jason Crutchfield part of the time.
When she showed up to the gym at the age of 11, not even her coach believed in female boxing. “I didn’t want her to mess up her lady parts,” Crutchfield stated in the PBS documentary, “T Rex: Her Fight for Gold.”
One thing stands out in the documentary chronicling her road to the 2012 Olympics, Claressa Shields is tough as nails on the outside. But, she has a tender compassion and desire to please without casting suspicion or judgment.
Upon returning from London, Shields dipped into her Olympic stipend to fend off the collection agency that was demanding payment of her mother’s overdue water bill. Everyone in her family is depending on Claressa’s success. A role she seems to relish.
She was almost a teenage mother because of her proclivity to help others. A look at 2014 photos in her Instagram account show a baby named Klaressa. Klaressa is the child whom the Olympic boxer tried to adopt from her cousin to prevent her from aborting the pregnancy.
“I’m going to give her the best of everything, and I’m going to protect her like no mother ever protected her baby,” Shields told Yahoo Sports in 2015.
Again, that was complicated. After a year of Claressa caring for the infant, training and finishing high school, her cousin decided to change the terms of the agreement when Shields caught her stealing from her. After she was confronted, the cousin called the police and said that Shields had kidnapped the child.
Clearing up the incident with the police almost derailed her entire career. The distractions proved enough to convince Claressa to move to the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs to prepare for Rio. She decided to move on from Crutchfield, and was enveloped by an entirely new coaching staff.
For all that she’s been through, Shields maintains the buoyancy of a child. Perhaps a degree of arrested development exists for the young woman who had her childhood taken from her.
It’s hard to believe that Shields was five-years old before she begun to speak, and suffered from a severe stuttering problem for years afterwards. She speaks with conviction and confidence whenever asked about why she boxes.
At 5’9” and 165 lbs, Shields doesn’t fit the traditional role of “Olympic darling” quite like a pint-sized gymnast or figure skater. Perhaps it’s not surprising that fame and endorsement deals she hoped would follow her success in London never materialized.
In the PBS documentary, US Boxing representatives try to encourage Claressa to soften up a bit and stop saying “I love hitting people” like she did on the Stephen Colbert show. To which she quipped, “I box!”
Understandably, anger was the first reason she was drawn to the ring. Like so many boxers before her, hitting something allowed Claressa to deal with the past while making an opportunity to improve her future.
IEBA estimated in 2012 that 500,000 women held boxing licenses. Still, the pool of competition is relatively shallow when it comes to any real competition for Claressa Shields.
The endorsements have trickled in already and she’s barely fresh off the victor’s stand. Universal Pictures purchased the rights to produce her biopic and her “T-Rex” documentary continues to make the rounds. Endorsement deals with Under Armour, PowerAde and Dick’s Sporting Goods are also being finalized.
Even so, when asked what she really wants, Shields emphatically says, “I just wanna go down in history as one of the best woman fighters that ever lived.”