Flint boxer Claressa Shields dreams of 2nd gold

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Lansing — Claressa Shields has heard the comparisons before, between her and tennis star Serena Williams. There’s a likeness there. A dominance, too.

And when Shields saw the photo of Williams celebrating her second consecutive double-gold medal performance at the 2012 London Olympics, holding up her twin souvenirs with a big smile on her face, Shields — the reigning Olympic boxing gold medalist from Flint — pictured herself doing the same.

“The difference between one gold medal and two is I can hold one over here and one over here,” she said earlier this week, mugging for the cameras after a workout with her trainer, Joe Bermudez Jr., at Gallo Boxing Gym in Lansing. “So that’s the goal right there.”

And this is the golden hope for USA Boxing. Shields is the lone returning U.S. medalist in the ring from the Games in London, where she made history as a brash 17-year-old as women’s boxing made its Olympic debut.

Her story then was captivating: Surviving a difficult childhood in Flint by throwing herself at the age of 11 into a sport where girls weren’t welcome — bobbing and weaving around her family’s struggles with drugs and crime to become a champion. But the narrative was hardly complete, even after she’d heard her national anthem played, or celebrated her high school graduation at Flint Northwestern the following spring.

The endorsement opportunities never really materialized after London, forcing Shields to reassess her future. She put her plans to turn pro on hold, and now the 20-year-old is busy preparing for an encore at the Olympics. She plans to defend her middleweight title at the 2016 Rio Games, hoping to capitalize on her Olympic fame and catapult her career to the professional ranks.

Two weeks ago, she took the first step, winning the U.S. Olympic trials to reclaim her roster spot. And this time, there was no surprise, in or out of the ring. Because, as she puts it, “I’m not the underdog this time. I’m the top dog.”

Just like she did at the trials four years ago in Spokane, Shields had to knock off her 28-year-old rival Tika Hemingway — twice — in the same week. At the U.S. national championships in January, it took a split decision for Shields.

But this time she got a little help from her younger sister, Briana, who was able to make the trip for the first time, along with their parents, thanks to help from online donations.

Shields isn’t much for talking before her fights. Hemingway, who also served as Shields sparring partner in the run-up to the London Games, is a different story. So is Shields’ sister, apparently.

“She told me, ‘I’ll do the trash talking for you,’ ” laughed Claressa, who then did the rest, winning another unanimous decision — her fourth in four bouts at the trials — to clinch her Olympic team spot.

“To actually get that out of the way ... I mean, I’ve been waiting on the Olympic trials for eight months,” said Shields, whose hardscrabble story is the subject of a documentary film, “T-Rex,” that’s playing to rave reviews around the country. “Everybody knows Tika. I was so ready for her. I just wanted to get my hands on her. And when I was … it gave me a sense of relief.

“Because everybody was saying that she was good and tough, which she is. But I’m great, she’s good. That’s the difference between two fighters.”

That’s been the difference between Shields and every other fighter the past few years, as she has amassed a 66-1 career record, winning every tournament she has entered since the 2012 world championships in China.

Two big events remain before Rio as Shields and the rest of the U.S. boxers try to secure their Olympic qualifications. There’s the AIBA women’s continental tournament in March in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and then the world championships in May in Astana, Kazakhstan.

First, though, there’s work to be done back at the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Shields returned late last week after a brief respite at home in Flint. And where there’s a new head coach for the women’s national team, as USA Boxing finally seems to be getting its act together.

New executive director Mike Martino announced at the trials the hiring of Billy Walsh, the highly respected coach of Ireland’s successful national teams the last 12 years.

“We’ve been without a coach at the Olympic training center for I don’t know long,” said Shields, whom Martino calls “our No. 1 athlete” heading into 2016. “And we’ve had different camps with all these different coaches. Now it’s a resident coach. He was there at the trials. So he knows what I need to fix and what he thinks I should improve on.”

“And he has a great accent,” she added, “so it’s gonna be funny talking to him. I look forward to it.”

Shields plans to stay in Colorado until the U.S. women head to Reno in early December for team trials for next spring’s world championships. Surrounded by other Olympic hopefuls at the training center, she won’t be lacking for resources — “She has all the experts here to help her prepare for competition,” Martino said — or motivation. Even when she had a few weeks off her last stay there, “before I knew it, within three days, I was back on the treadmill, back in the gym.

“You get up and go to breakfast and you see everybody eating, but then you see them rushing out to go work out. It never lets you lose sight of what’s important, which is Rio. And winning gold in Rio.”