Rio de Janeiro – It was the accent that got them first.
“I speak Irish, I’m told,” laughed Billy Walsh, hired last fall to be USA Boxing’s new coach after spending the last 12 years turning Ireland’s national team into an Olympic powerhouse.
So right away, there was a bit of a language barrier for Flint’s Claressa Shields, the star of the U.S. team and the lone American boxing gold medalist since 2004. Shields began her quest for another Olympic gold in Rio on Wednesday with a unanimous decision over Russia’s Yaroslava Yakushina.
It was her first judged fight since the spring, and after weeks of waiting since arriving in Brazil with the rest of the U.S. team, Shields, who’d gotten a bye into the quarterfinals, admitted it took some time to shake off the rust.
“That was a C-minus performance,” said Shields, who’d tried to keep busy the last couple weeks, even sparring with some of the U.S. men’s boxers in Rio.
Walsh didn’t offer a grade after Shields’ debut, but agreed, “It wasn’t her best performance. But she was comfortable in there.”
And once the two-time world champion had gotten her timing down, he added, it was no contest — Yakushina received a standing eight-count just before the final bell — “and if it were any longer, I think the fight would’ve been stopped.”
“I’m very happy with her,” he said.
'Trying to understand'
It took a while to get to this point, though, trading compliments instead of verbal jabs. Shields jokingly calls Walsh her “white uncle” now, and he lauds her work ethic as much as her immense talent. But it took some time for these two, quite frankly, to start speaking the same language.
“I understand the accent now, but at first, when he used to talk, I’d put my ear this close to him — I wouldn’t even look at him — and I’d just listen,” laughed Shields, who’ll face Kazakhstan’s Dariga Shakimova in Friday’s semifinals. “And he’d be like, ‘Roger, are you there?’ And I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’m trying to understand what you’re talking about!’ ”
But the communication issues ran far deeper than Walsh’s thick Irish brogue. The 53-year-old native of Wexford, Ireland, was brought into to overhaul the dysfunctional U.S boxing program, given a contract through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and handed all the power he needed. He’s officially coaching the women’s team now, but is expected to add the men’s title after these Olympics.
That immediately put him at odds with Shields, who’d become an Olympic middleweight champ in 2012 with little, if any, coaching help from USA Boxing. Walsh began working with the women in October at the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo. where Shields had decided to move in as a resident athlete last year, escaping some of the headaches — financial and otherwise — as she prepared for the Rio Olympics.
Yet, they weren’t working together all that well initially.
“I’m not a very trusting person,” said Shields, who’d stopped training with her longtime coach, Jason Crutchfield, shortly after the London Olympics. “I don’t like trusting people. Especially when it comes to my boxing. And when they think they know me better than I know myself.”
Walsh had coached Ireland to seven medals the last two Olympics — compared to three for the U.S. — including Katie Taylor, the lightweight gold medalist who was arguably boxing’s biggest Olympic star in London. He said it took three months, “at least,” to finally find common ground with Shields, who boasts a 75-1 career amateur record after Wednesday’s victory.
“Psychologically, I had to get inside her brain, know what she was thinking,” Walsh said. “First thought she had was, ‘I’m an Olympic gold medalist. You’re from Ireland. Who the (expletive) are you telling me what to do?’ ”
'She's the world's best'
That’s not far from the mark, admits Shields, who developed a quick bond with U.S. assistant Kay Koroma even as she clashed with Walsh.
“At first, he wanted me to change a lot of stuff about the way I box,” she said. “And I was like, ‘No, I’m not doing that. You’re not gonna take away stuff that I do to add new things I don’t know anything about.’ From there, we had about five talks before we got on the same page. I was just like, ‘Oh, I don’t like this guy.’ For at least two or three months, it was like that. Outside the gym, he’s a great person, he’s funny. But when we were in the gym, I’m just like, ‘You want us to do what?’ and I’m looking at him like, ‘I’m not doin’ that.’ ”
Finally, around Christmas, Walsh was done shadow-boxing with his gold medalist.
“It came to a stage in January where it was either her or me,” Walsh said. “One of us was going. And I said, ‘I’ve got a contract for another three years, and you’re here ’till August. You can stay at home and do it, or you can stay with me and do it.’ She came back in January and both of us decided to compromise.
“I’ve incorporated some of the stuff that she wanted with some of the stuff that I felt was going to make her better. She did feel that I was trying to change her, but I wasn’t really trying to change her. I was trying to add tools to her, in case another Claressa Shields turns up in Rio.”
And now that they’re both here, it’s doubtful another Shields will arrive before this tournament is done.
“I definitely feel like I’m the best fighter in the world here, male or female,” Shields said Wednesday.
Said Walsh: “She’s the world’s best. And her mission coming here is to be USA’s first-ever double Olympic gold medalist. She’s a class apart from all the rest of them.”
On that count, they have no trouble agreeing.