SPOKANE, Wash. -- She won an Olympic gold medal at 17, but Claressa Shields knows it’s only going to get harder, not easier.
The teenager from Flint, Michigan, was an inspiring novelty at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Last year, she took home the world championship title and was named Outstanding Boxer of the Tournament. Now, as the ramp-up for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro begins, she’s a target.
That was driven home for her in somewhat harrowing fashion this weekend at the USA Boxing National Championships, the first qualifier for boxers aiming for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
And not just for Shields. Fellow 2012 Olympians Marlen Esparza and Queen Underwood also learned more about life as the hunted.
But all survived to defend their national titles. So their rivals will have to go back to the gym and work that much harder.
“And they will,” said Shields. “I’m not just No. 1 in the country, I’m No. 1 in the world now. I’ve already won the Olympics, and I’m trying to do it again. The girls are really training, but it’s not just about them going to the Olympics, but being a gold medalist — that’s a life-changer for them.
“But I’m ready for whatever they’ve got.”
Still, Shields was pushed to the limits in Spokane. Tika Hemingway, who lost two close matches to her in the 2012 trials, came back off a long layoff with a familiar game plan of using her strength to smother Shields in close. It almost worked: the fighters split on two judges’ cards and were tied on a third, but Shields moved to the finals on that judge’s tiebreaker nod.
There the gold medalist had to outlast 2012 world silver medalist Raquel Miller in another split decision.
If Esparza’s run to a ninth U.S. title looked easier, it didn’t necessarily feel that way to her. And it took her a couple rounds to find a rhythm against lefthander and fellow Texan Virginia Fuchs before scoring a unanimous decision in the final.
“People laugh at me because I might be boxing someone who isn’t considered my equal, but I’m still nervous,” said the 25-year-old from Houston. “But they can be better than you for just eight minutes, and that’s enough.”
Nevertheless, Esparza’s success on the world stage — a bronze medal in London and gold at the 2014 World Championships — has made her confident enough to use her domestic bouts as tools to educate herself.
“I’m not just trying to win, but to understand what’s going on in the fight,” she said, “and if I find a person with a similar style (to someone she’s faced internationally), I might pretend that’s who she is.
“I think I’m a smarter boxer than I was, a lot more willing to embrace the pressure that comes with this. I think four years ago, some people were more mentally evolved. I think I’m ready to win now. Before, I wanted to, but I don’t know if I was ready.”
Shields and Esparza nailed down their trials berths just by advancing to the finals. Underwood will have to take a different route.
That’s because she decided to return to her old welterweight roots at 141 pounds for this tournament, rather than box at the Olympic weight of 132. In her absence, Mikaela Mayer of Los Angeles and Lisa Porter of Van Nuys, California, claimed the qualifying spots, Mayer winning a 3-0 decision in the final.
Underwood was impressive in her final, too — earning a technical knockout of Nakarri Jones in the fourth round. But the Seattle boxer’s decision not to fight in the Olympic weight class set some tongues wagging.
“I don’t have anything to prove to anybody,” said Underwood, who won an eighth national title. “It wasn’t about making weight. I’ve held the Olympic weight class for four years. I just wanted these nationals to be different, without all that pressure on me.”
Turns out she got some anyway in the semis, escaping with a split-decision victory over Rashida Ellis.
“And 132 didn’t look as competitive as I thought,” she said.
Like her fellow Olympians, Underwood feels she’s a “smarter fighter now, and technically better.” A resident at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for the last year and a half, she’s tried to be a more complete fighter — shedding the occasional slow start and not having to bail herself out with the trademark furious finish.
“Sometimes I’m a little too relaxed,” she admitted. “But I’ve worked at becoming more disciplined.”
Underwood was the lone American woman not to medal in London, losing to Great Britain’s Natasha Jones in the prelims. But she’s not any less hungry than her two teammates.
“For one thing, this is it for me — no way I’m staying around until 2020,” Esparza said. “So it’s kind of all or nothing.
“If anything, it’s more consuming this time.”