Claressa Shields has never been one to let her circumstances dictate her actions.
That was the case when she went from a teenager from poverty-stricken Flint, Michigan, to an Olympic gold medalist in boxing in 2012. And she hasn’t slowed down since, now that she’s competing on the professional level.
“I try not to look back in my past too much because I love looking forward. Everything I look forward to is just amazing for me,” said Shields, now 24 years old. “Even when I was going through all that back then, I just looked forward. God had a lot to do with it. (In the Bible), Jeremiah 29:11 says: ‘For I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’
“And to me that saying was that even though you’re going through hell right now, even though life is not how you want it to be, I want you to continue to look forward because tomorrow will be better.”
Indeed, her future looks as bright as ever.
Shields started boxing at age 11 and became the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in boxing when she did so at the Olympic Games London 2012. And that was when she was just 17 years old and a junior in high school.
Four years later, Shields won a second gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. She is the only American — male or female — to win back-to-back gold medals in boxing.
Now she’s well on her way into a successful professional career, an endeavor that reached a new peak on April 12 when she beat Germany’s Christina Hammer to become the first undisputed middleweight champion in women’s boxing.
Getting to the top of her sport required no shortage of hard word and dedication from Shields. As she’s happy to point out, though, she’s had strong influences who helped guide her along the way.
At the top of any such list, Shields said, is her friend and mentor Corey Gaines.
"Corey has been my mentor since I was 17 years old. She is like a second mother to me,” Shields said. “She can’t teach me anything about boxing, but she does as far as life and how to carry myself and how I should talk and how I should be looked at and just allowed me to be myself. … She was able to teach me and be one of the reasons I accept myself 100 percent.”
In the ring, Shields has looked to boxing coach Kay Koroma as a mentor. He began working with Shields in the leadup to the Rio Games. Upon winning her gold medal there, Shields presented him with her Order of Ikkos medal, an honor each U.S. medalist can bestow upon an influential coach in his or her journey.
“He really wants to get the 100 percent out of you,” Shields said. “Even if you think you don’t need the 100 percent he wants the 100 percent every day. And that’s one of the main things I love about Coach Kay.”
As Koroma said of Shields at the 2016 Olympics: “Claressa came out of nowhere and now the world loves her because of the way she fights. She fights differently from every other girl, and even some of the boys. And maybe she should be in there with the boys sometimes.”
Andre Ward has also been an inspiring person Shields looks up to.
“I really admire his life style,” she said. “And I’m trying to make my life style be just like that.”
Of course, as Shields climbs the ranks in her sport, her own influence is spreading. That trend shows no signs of slowing down, and not just because of her success in the ring.
Barry Jenkins, who co-wrote and directed the Oscar winning movie “Moonlight,” is working on a script for a movie about Shields.
Shields, who listens to Sam and Dave’s “Hold On I’m Coming” song before bouts, says she also has considered performing music.
“I sing here and there a little bit but I haven’t gotten comfortable singing enough yet,” she said. “I box in front of thousands of people. I haven’t gotten comfortable where I’d be singing in front of thousands of people. So I’m just working my way up from there.”
In the meantime, Shields will continue in boxing for many more years. Whether she will be allowed to compete in the 2020 Olympics is up in the air due to her status as a professional.
“It’s so iffy with that,” she said. “They said they may allow professional boxers to come back for those Olympics. They have in other countries, but in the U.S., they haven’t. … But I would love to go back to the Olympics.
“Don’t get me wrong. In 2020, I would love to defend my two Olympics gold medals at 165 (middleweight class). But I feel like I have friends fighting for those spots. One of my good friends, Naomi Graham, is ranked No. 1. Another, Oshae Jones, is ranked No. 1 at 152. I don’t want to ruin our friendships by ruining their plans at coming back and going to 2020.
“I have so much to look forward to in professional boxing.”
Jim Caple is a former longtime writer for ESPN and the St. Paul Pioneer Press based in Seattle. He has covered sports on six continents, including 12 Olympics and 20 World Series. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.