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How Claressa Shields’ Natural Leadership Skills Are Helping The U.S. Olympic Boxing Team

By Frank Gogola | Aug. 04, 2016, 12:50 a.m. (ET)

"We made it to the village and we're excited about it!! @claressashields" -Mikaela Mayer

RIO DE JANEIRO – Mikaela Mayer first met Claressa Shields at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Spokane, Washington. Shields was still a relative unknown. It would be several months until she won a historic women’s boxing Olympic gold medal.

“I came up to her, and I’m like, ‘Hey, you know I heard you’re supposed to win this thing,’” Mayer said. “And a young 17-year-old girl, she’s just like, ‘Yep.’ You know, very humble at the time. I think she knew how great she was, and then she really proved it to herself.”

Four years later, Mayer will make her Olympic debut alongside Shields. They’re the only two U.S. women’s boxers competing in Rio. Mayer, 26, will be competing in lightweight boxing (60 kg). Shields, 21, will look to defend her middleweight (75 kg.) title and become the first U.S. boxer to win back-to-back golds.

The duo has been rooming together in the athletes’ village. Mayer and Shields have created a schedule where they wake up, head out for breakfast and hit the gym together each day. Mayer has found observing, talking to and working out with Shields beneficial and hopes to continue to learn from the experience.

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“Claressa’s just really kind of a natural team leader,” Mayer said. “I don’t think it’s even just because she’s been here and has her gold medal. She’s taken the time to really develop a personal relationship with everyone on the team. We can talk to her about anything. She’s not judgmental. And in return we trust in her and put pride in her.

“She’s a great teammate to have, especially with just us two girls. I really couldn’t ask for anyone better.”

Mayer begins competition Aug. 12, while Shields starts two days later. Until then, they plan to continue with their daily schedules, attend the Opening Ceremony and support the six U.S. men’s boxers at their matches.

“It’s good to have someone here to laugh and joke with because we got a lot of time to kill,” Mayer said.

Mayer’s path to the Olympics began at 17 when she joined Muay Thai kickboxing. She accepted a scholarship to Northern Michigan University, the only boxing scholarship in the United States at the time since boxing is not an NCAA-sanctioned sport.

With funding cut after one semester, she stayed for a while to continue training with NMU coach Al Mitchell. He was such an influence in helping her reach the Olympics that she had his initials tattooed on her hand.

“To this day, he’s family,” Mayer said.

She took classes on and off while training for an Olympic berth. She moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, after making the Olympic team in October. It was there she began to train with U.S. women’s boxing coach Billy Walsh.

“I think it was a good time for a change,” Mayer said. “I was getting a little older. I think [Al] took me to where we could take me. He was OK with me going and moving on with Billy. Billy is great, too, in a different way. He has a lot of experience, especially with the women, internationally. I believe he has really helped improve my technique. He’s going to help me get to that next level.”

Mayer’s toughest opponent may be 2012 gold medalist Katie Taylor from Ireland. She spoke with respect for Taylor and called her the best women’s boxer since Mayer took up the sport.

Brazil’s Adriana Araujo, a 2012 bronze medalist, also returns this year.

Walsh, though, said all bets are off when it comes to Mayer’s chances in the Olympics.

“She has all the tools and skills to beat anybody else in the competition,” he said.

Mayer doesn’t want this chase for glory to be her only Olympic experience. She hopes to return for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at age 30 with a college degree and hopes to be defending an Olympic medal.

Frank Gogola of the Sports Capital Journalism Program is a graduate student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

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Mikaela Mayer