Claressa Shields: Bigger punch with 2nd gold medal

Flint native found becoming the first U.S. boxer to win back-to-back Olympic golds brought her a larger audience


Claressa Shields wasn’t fighting for redemption at this summer’s Olympics. She was fighting for validation.

A funny thing happened for the 21-year-old Flint native on the road to Rio de Janeiro: She found her voice. And as she slugged her way to another title, becoming the first American boxer in history to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals, Shields discovered just how far that voice carried.

Not just in celebration, whether it was winning another world championship in Kazakhstan last spring or racing around Rio’s boxing pavilion after the women’s middleweight final on Aug. 21, draped in an American flag and breathlessly telling reporters, “Oh, my God! I feel like I’m dreaming right now! Somebody pinch me!”

But also in inspiration, as Shields finally connected with a larger audience, the kind she’d expected to find after she’d first made her mark four years ago in London, winning the lone gold medal for the U.S. team as women’s boxing made its Olympic debut in 2012.

The Detroit News' Michiganians of the Year

Back then, there wasn’t much interest in her story once the golden moment had passed. Endorsement opportunities never materialized. Shields returned home to a cluttered bedroom in her mother’s house in Flint — and all the headaches she thought she’d left behind — and she couldn’t help but wonder what was next.

“But good things come to those who wait,” said Shields, who started boxing at age 11 after convincing her father, Clarence, who’d spent most of her early childhood in prison, to let her try. “Looking back, I don’t think I was ready for that stuff when I was 17.”

She was ready for more, though, and Shields eventually decided if one gold medal wasn’t enough — “How about I go back and get two?”

So she found a new agent, moved from Flint to Colorado Springs last year and settled in there as a resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic training center in preparation for the 2016 Rio Games.

Once she’d qualified for her second Olympics, Shields saw her profile explode like one of her powerful combinations in the ring.

Her remarkable rise — from an impoverished childhood in Flint to Olympic gold — already was the subject of an award-winning documentary film released in 2015. Earlier this year, Universal Pictures purchased the movie rights to Shields’ life story. (Barry Jenkins, the writer and director of the critically-acclaimed “Moonlight,” recently signed on to write the script.)

There also were profiles in national media outlets — commercials, too, in the months leading up to Rio — as Shields talked not just about her own story, but also her hometown, especially as Flint’s water crisis resonated.

“I want Flint to be known as a place of resilience,” said Shields, a 2013 graduate of Flint Northwestern High School.

In amateur boxing, she is known simply as the best, compiling a 77-1 career record. And she dominated in Rio, prompting U.S. coach Billy Walsh to declare, “She’s a class apart from all the rest of ’em.”

Last month, Shields was honored as the 2016 Sportswoman of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Now she’s ready to embark on a pro career, signing a contract for her first bout Nov. 19 on the undercard of the Andre Ward-Sergey Kovalev light heavyweight title fight in Las Vegas. Shields hasn’t ruled out another Olympic quest — and a third gold medal in Tokyo in 2020 — if international boxing rules allow, but she calls this “the next big step in my career, fighting professionally and leading the rise of women’s boxing worldwide.”

And though she moved her training base to Florida, “I still love my hometown, and I’m still gonna be involved in my hometown,” she insists.

The reason is pretty simple, too, as she explained back in August with two Olympic gold medals draped around her neck:

“I have been through a lot in my life, so I want to inspire people. I want to help people, and I want to give people just a little bit of hope, because I remember when I was one of those kids who didn’t have any hope. And when I got just a little bit, look how far I’ve been able to come.”

John Niyo

Claressa Shields

Age: 21

Occupation: Amateur boxer

Education: Flint Northwestern High School

Family: Single

Why honored: Flint native made history as first American to win two Olympic gold medals in boxing

Read about the other Michiganians of the Year