RIO DE JANEIRO — Claressa Shields came to Rio as a heavy favorite to win her second Olympic gold medal.
She lived up to her promise.
In the gold-medal bout against Nouchka Fontijn of the Netherlands, Shields looked like she was having fun, ducking and waiting to throw punches when it counted. She won by unanimous decision.
Afterwards, the 21-year-old boxer was in disbelief.
“Oh my god, I won,” she said, with the American flag still draped around her shoulders. “I listened to the game plan, and I had fun last round, and I landed a lot of big shots and I won the gold medal. Oh my god. I feel like I’m dreaming. Somebody pinch me. This is crazy.”
Shields is the first U.S. boxer to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals.
(Of note, Oliver Kirk won two Olympic gold medals for the U.S. in boxing at the St. Louis 1904 Olympic Games — but in two different weight divisions. The 115-pound boxer first competed in the bantamweight division (123 pounds). He knocked out his opponent. The crowd then wanted to see him take on the featherweight winner (now flyweight, 126 pounds), a division that only had two competitors at the 1904 Games. Kirk won by decision and was awarded his second Olympic gold medal in the same day.)
At the 2012 London Games — where women’s boxing made its Olympic debut — Shields was only 17 years old and had yet to graduate from high school. She came from the tough streets of Flint, Michigan, known for its economic crisis, street violence and, most recently, drinking water contamination. When she became the first U.S. woman to win a boxing gold medal, defeating Russian Nadezda Torlopova in the middleweight division, her story became Olympic legend.
The award-winning film “T-Rex,” now available on Netflix, documents her life and came out after the London Olympic Games.
Shields brought a winning streak to Rio (a streak that now stands at 77-1). One of her most recent victories was at the 2016 world championships in May. She fought Fontijn and won, 3-0.
Before the gold-medal fight in Rio, Shields said that Fontijn was a great fighter but didn’t have the tools to beat her, but “let the best woman win.”
The best woman did win: Shields. But it took her a round to settle in. Before the match, she had a “bit of a mishap,” reported USA Boxing women’s head coach Billy Walsh. The mishap turned out to be a hair emergency; Shields needed her mom to braid her hair, which cut into warmup.
The first round was pretty close. And Walsh blamed it on nerves.
“There was a lot of pressure on her,” said the coach. “She was the red-hot favorite. To perform under those circumstances sometimes is difficult. But as the fight went on, she loosened up. I told her to enjoy this, show the people what you can do.”
Shields did just that, ducking from Fontijn’s punches, holding her ground as the Dutch woman danced around, and then landing well-time punches.
In the final round, Shields gestured to Fontijn with her gloves, as if to say “bring it on.”
“Last round was like, hey, we’re here to fight, you think you can beat me, let’s go,” Shields said, explaining the gesture. “I hit you with a hard shot, hit me back. I want to see if you can hit me.”
Her main concern before the match was Fontijn’s height. The Dutch woman has six inches on the American (Shields is 5-3, Fontijn 5-9).
“She’s so tall and so long and she’s powerful,” said Shields. “I was like what are you going to do about that?”
What she was going to do was practice her quick-fire bobbing and weaving — “like this,” she said, demonstrating to reporters.
Shields brought belief and confidence into the ring.
“I had decided this morning: she can’t out-box me, she can’t out-fight me, she can’t out-think me, so how’s she going to win?,” Shields said. “She’s got to knock me out, and I knew she couldn't do that.”
“You know what,” she told herself. “I think this fight is in the bag. You just have to go out there and do it. That’s it.”
She also brought her strong Christian faith to the bout.
“I prayed before I came here,” she said. “I just knew God was with me. Maybe [Fontijn] was good enough to beat me. But she wasn’t good enough to beat me and God. I always have God in my corner every fight.”
In the four-round match, Shields didn’t even remember getting hit. And she won by unanimous decision.
For Shields, boxing in the Olympic Games is about more than winning a gold medal. The legacy is important, she said. But she also wanted to show that female boxers deserve respect, and that anyone who grew up in similar tough circumstances can strive for their dreams.
“Don't let your surroundings create who you are or what your parents did or didn't do control who you are,” she said after her semifinal bout. “Your life depends on your decisions, and it depends on what you want to do. Growing up in Flint, there was so much darkness around me, but I still had a few good people around, and that's how I was able to see things and become the person I am. I just want to show people that when you make your own decisions for your life, sometimes it plays out the way you want it to. I just want to help people and I want to help them because what I grew up with and what I had to overcome was difficult. But look where I am now.”
Shields planned to walk into the Closing Ceremony wearing both her Olympic gold medals.
“I worked so hard to get here,” she said. “Not anybody can be an Olympic gold medalist period. But to say I’m a two-time Olympic gold medalist, oh my God, I can’t even believe I just said that. Oh oh oh! I don’t even think I’m up. I think I’m sleeping. Jesus, wake me up.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Rio covering her fourth Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.