Against all odds
From abject poverty to Olympic champion - Claressa Shields' remarkable and inspiring journey
At an ice-breaker during their orientation last month, the incoming freshmen at Olivet College were asked to tell their classmates two truths and a lie about themselves.
When it was Claressa Shields' turn, some of the students decided "winning gold at the London Olympics" certainly was the lie. No, others said, the fib was that Shields is a boxer.
The truth? Hardly anyone would believe it. And winning an Olympic gold medal as a 17-year-old is only the half of it.
"She has come so far from ... that little girl who didn't have a coat but still got up in wintertime and went to school. Who didn't have anything to eat and still made her way," said Mickey Rouse, who has become a mother figure to Shields and whose husband, Jason Crutchfield, coaches the Olympic champion. "That girl, who can forget her? That's remarkable."
A year after winning the Olympic middleweight title in London - the only gold by a US boxer, male or female - Shields is defying expectations once again. Sidesteppng the cycle of poverty and crime that dragged down family members and resisting the temptations of newfound fame, Shields has done more than find an escape from her tough circumstances.
She's given herself options.
The first of her siblings to graduate from high school, she begins classes this month at Olivet in Michigan. She was awarded a full scholarship, and plans to study broadcast journalism and business. "I wasn't too excited about college at first because I really didn't think that I wanted to go," she said. "The only thing I wanted to do is box. But in the end, as you get older, you learn things. You've got to have a plan B and a plan C."
She learned that the hard way after London.
Unlike Michael Phelps and gymnast Gabby Douglas, Shields' gold medal didn't come with fame and fortune. Oh, sure, she made the rounds of dignitaries in Michigan, appeared on The Colbert Report, walked the red carpet at "The BET Honours" in February and was a question on Jeopardy. But Fortune 500 companies didn't come calling with endorsement deals. She wasn't asked to be a presenter on any of the major award shows, like Douglas and her Fierce Five teammates.
She wasn't even nominated for an ESPY. "It's not hate toward Gabby Douglas. She did a great job. She went there and represented America," Shields said. "But I did the same thing."
Shields got a US$25,000 bonus from the US Olympic Committee, just as Phelps, Douglas and every other US athlete who won a gold medal in London did. But aside from the occasional speaking engagement, most of her income now is in the form of her US$2,000-per-month training stipend.
Shields blames the lack of attention on the fact that women's boxing isn't as popular in the US as gymnastics or swimming. But Olympic champions need more than a gold medal to cash in, and her new agent and promoter, Rick Mirigian, insists it's all a matter of marketing the engaging Shields and her remarkable story.
He's already been in talks with several big companies, including Wonderful Pistachios, Beats by Dre and the Jordan Brand, and Mirigian said IMG was in Flint to film a documentary on Shields. "We're really creating the foundation for her to have her chance at mainstream America," Mirigian said. "[The deals] won't be millions of dollars, but they'll absolutely be significant. Significant from an exposure standpoint and significant monetarily.
"Claressa is an untapped market for a lot of companies," Mirigian added. "She's an amazing story. Period."
Indeed, long before she was old enough to understand long-range plans or preparing for her future, Shields showed flashes of a resilience that is as powerful and unwavering as the blows she delivers with her fists.
She grew up on Flint's gritty East Side, which took the loss of the automotive industry harder than any other in "Vehicle City". Buick City, the vast assembly complex that employed 30,000 people in its heyday and dominated the landscape, is little more than barren concrete now. The neighbourhoods surrounding it are pock-marked by abandoned homes, and those that are occupied look tired and rundown. The few businesses that have braved the fallout barricade themselves behind thick, black bars on windows and doors.
With her father in prison for a good portion of her childhood for breaking and entering and her mother bouncing from one address to another,
Shields realised early on that she could only rely on herself. She gravitated towards boxing, and the local youth programme Crutchfield runs became her sanctuary.
Boxing may be the most brutal of sports, but it gave Shields a precious gift: A window to a world beyond Flint.
Beginning with rides to and from practice and school, Crutchfield and Rouse welcomed Shields into their home and their hearts. Shields calls Rouse "Mama Mickey". They consider her one of their own.
But Shields and Crutchfield have been at odds almost since they returned from London, with most of their disagreements centring on Shields' boyfriend. Like most teenage girls with their first serious beau, Shields spends most of her free time with him, and Crutchfield worries that he's a distraction.
"I just think it's hard for any father to accept when his daughter is getting older and she's starting to talk to boys," Shields said.
"It's OK to go off sometime and have a little fun. And I've kind of been doing that. [But] I know I'm a role model, so I don't do anything that [people] wouldn't want to have their kids doing," Shields said, pointing out that she doesn't smoke, drink or do anything "crazy".
Part of what attracted Shields to Olivet is the school has a small boxing ring and bags, so she can continue to train. What she's training for, however, isn't nearly so settled.
But she's also considering turning professional simply so she can fight, something she hasn't done much of since London. Under international rules, the minimum age for fighters in the elite division is 19. USA Boxing used to allow fighters under 19 to compete at the senior national championships, as well as other amateur tournaments, while hosting an under-19 national championship. Beginning this year, however, USA Boxing created a youth division specifically for 18- and 19-year-olds.
That means Shields, who won't be 19 until next March 17, must fight in the youth division at amateur tournaments. And few want to get in the ring with a fighter who has a 33-1 record, including 15 TKOs.
"I've missed out on probably three big tournaments," she said. "I don't even understand why they changed the rules."
Despite waning interest in the sport in the United States, Mirigian said Shields would have opportunities if she turned pro.
But that would probably be a short-term solution to a long-term dilemma, and Shields, Crutchfield and Mirigian are working with USA Boxing to find ways to make it worth her while to stay amateur through Rio.
"I don't know if I expected too much or too less, but whatever I expected, I didn't get," Shields said.
"I'm not upset about it because when it comes that time for me to get all that media and all that stuff, it'll come. For right now, I'm just going to let God handle that stuff. I'll just wait.
"Good things," she said, "come to those who wait."