LONDON – Claressa Shields made history on Thursday as the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in boxing.
Shimmying on the podium and staring at her medal, the 17-year-old from Flint, Michigan, was joy personified. It wasn’t just the victory. There are reasons. Many reasons. Most of them personal. Almost all of them known by her trainer Jason Crutchfield.
Crutchfield wasn’t working Shields’ corner on Thursday, but he has had her back since she appeared at his gym at age 11 looking to fulfill one of her father’s greatest regrets.
Shields said her father and namesake, Clarence, had spent his youth in and out of jail and never had the chance to box. When he told her about Muhammad Ali and his daughter Laila, she had an idea.
“’Ressa was a quick study,” Crutchfield said, and when Shields was 13, the two began dreaming and planning for this day.
“I wanted to prove we could do it – to everybody,” Crutchfield said in the hall outside the arena after Shields had won her gold medal.
“She proved a lot,” he paused. “She proved a lot.
“We’ve both been through up and down.”
While the two hadn’t exactly envisioned fighting Nadezda Torlopova of Russia for the middleweight (69-75kg) gold medal, neither underestimated the 2012 world championship silver medalist.
They discussed strategy via Skype the night before, and on Thursday, Shields executed the plan.
Initially, both women fought conservatively and were tied 3-3 after round one. In round two, Torlopova preferred to counterpunch but Shields figured out Torlopova’s game and found ways to land combinations. Shields went up 10-7. In round three, Torlopova continued to flick mini-jabs to provoke Shields into action but the teenager kept cool, slipped, and delivered straight jabs and crisp rights. Entering the fourth round leading 15-10, Shields just had to hang on.
With 30 seconds left, what remained of the pro-British crowd who had rallied thunderously around its flyweight, Nicola Adams, en route to a gold medal, and the even more numerous and deafening Irish crowd who blanketed the sold-out arena in green, white and orange during Katie Taylor’s lightweight victory, began chanting U-S-A, U-S-A.
Shields prevailed, 19-12.
“I just can’t believe it right now,” she said. “I got a gold medal I can wear every day, and it’s mine.”
“Probably for the first year,” she said, half kidding. “I worked too hard for this medal. I can’t explain all the pain and all the people I had to deal with, people who doubted me.”
“In Flint, when I used to go running, I’d see all these crackheads. I didn’t want to be like them. I wanted to have a good life. I wanted [it] to be where my sister, my little brother, and my mom would never have to go without a meal again. I went without meals growing up. I wanted to be able to take care of them.
“My brother got locked up and I’m the second-oldest so it was like I had to step up. And I stepped up at a young age.”
Whether Shields stays amateur for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics remains to be seen.
“I haven’t been able to think past today,” she said.
Asked whether his prodigy will be prepared for the onslaught of attention as a boxing pioneer and the pressure that comes with it, Crutchfield replied, “I hope she is. If she’s not, we’re gonna make sure she is. That’s why I’m here; to protect her. Make sure that girl’s in college, doing something.”
Shields acknowledged that her success has attracted new followers – some welcome, some not.
“Everybody wants to come back around,” she said. “I’m going to stick with the ones who was with me when I was low, when I didn’t have nothing.
“You gotta recognize ‘real.’ I recognize ‘real.’ You’re not gonna use me. I’m still gonna be in control of my life.
“I always tell everybody: I got me.”
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.