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Niyo: Flint's Shields golden again at Olympics

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Flint's Claressa Shields dominated women's boxing for the second consecutive Olympics.

Rio de Janeiro — Claressa Shields did a little dance before she stepped up on the podium Sunday afternoon. She was smiling broadly, and was ready to belt out the national anthem, the same way she’d belted each one of her opponents on the way to a historic victory, becoming the first American boxer in history to win a gold medal at two Olympics.

But before the U.S. flag was raised at the end of her medal ceremony, the champ still had one thing left to do. Shields, the 21-year-old Flint native who has become one of her sport’s brightest stars, unzipped the pocket of her USA warmup jacket and pulled out another souvenir. It was her gold medal from the 2012 London Olympics, and as she draped around her neck, overlapping the newly-minted gold from these Rio Games, the message — as it often is from Shields — was unmistakable.

“You only get to win one Olympic gold medal (at a time) in boxing,” she explained later, still basking in the moment. “And people didn’t really give me my recognition for doing it one time. So I was like, ‘You know what? When I get on the podium, I’m gonna put on both, so people will always remember — and never forget — that I’m the first American boxer to win two Olympic gold medals.”

No worries there, Claressa. And no worries here, either, as the world’s top amateur boxer — presented with the Val Barker Trophy as the most outstanding boxer at the Rio Olympics — left no doubts about her gold standard in the ring Sunday at Riocentro Pavillion.

She did it with the same ferocious flair that has become her trademark, winning a unanimous decision over the Netherlands Nouchka Fontijn in the middleweight final with another dominant performance.

Shields, who’d watch her friend and U.S. teammate Shakur Stevenson settle for a split-decision silver medal 24 hours earlier, vowed there would be no debate after her bout. And there wasn’t, as she pummeled another bigger, taller and older opponent, even exhorting the 28-year-old Fontijn, whom she’d defeated for her second world title in May, in the final round to take her best shot.

“I was like, ‘Hey, we’re here to fight? You think you can beat me? Let’s go!’” Shields said.

But once the fight had come and gone — Shields is 77-1 in her amateur career — it was time to celebrate, and unlike in London, this time she’d decided there would be no holding back.

Shields did a cartwheel after the decision was announced, then raced over to the bleachers, where her father, Clarence, and a small group of supporters were, to grab an American flag for a victory lap around the ring. A few minutes later, she was still trying to catch her breath — “Oh, my God! Am I asleep? I think I’m dreaming!” she gasped — before heading off for the medal ceremony.

‘Hold on to her’

Once she does catch her breath, though, she knows the questions will come flying — the “What’s left?” hooks and “Who’s right?” crosses. Once she returns to the U.S. — there’s a homecoming celebration planned at the Flint’s Bishop Airport on Tuesday afternoon — that’ll be the next challenge.

Will she break new ground — and more barriers — blazing a trail for women’s professional boxing? Or might she elect to chase even more glory four years from now at the 2020 Tokyo Games? Or maybe she’ll do both, if amateur boxing’s governing body makes good on plans to allow women’s pro fighters compete at the next Olympics, the way they did for the men in Rio.

“God said good things come those who wait, and I’ve been waiting a long time,” Shields said, “So if I can have the best of both worlds and fight professional, fight on TV, and then come back and represent the United States in 2020 in Tokyo, I’ll do that. But it just depends on the opportunities that come with both. So we’ll see.”

We’ll see what USA Boxing and the U.S. Olympic Committee can do in that regard as well, though it’s clear she’s a priority now.

“We’re going to everything possible to hold on to her,” said Billy Walsh, the U.S. national team coach. “We’ll be making some changes after this Games and then sitting down with them and negotiating and hopefully we can hang on to her for another Olympiad. It would be fantastic for the program, and fantastic for USA Boxing to do that. And hopefully we’ll have enough finances to make her have a decent life and fight as an amateur.”

Four years ago, Shields left London full of wide-eyed hope, a 17-year-old heading home expecting fame and fortune — or some measure of it, at least — would follow. But unlike other U.S. gold medalists, her endorsement opportunities never really materialized. And with little, if any, promotional appetite for women’s pro boxing — HBO never has shown a woman’s pro bout; Showtime’s last came 15 years ago — Shields had no choice but to refocus her sights on Rio and another Olympics.

Flint's Claressa Shields celebrates her gold medal victory in the women's middleweight (69-75kg) final.

“My gold medal didn’t really weigh a lot, I guess, to the media or to the boxing world, either,” she said.

Shields moved from Flint to the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., last winter, taking advantage of the facilities there, a relatively stress-free environment compared to home, and a $3,000 monthly stipend. And as a gold medal favorite with a remarkable story — her journey from a rugged, impoverished childhood in Flint to Olympic gold was the subject of an award-winning documentary film — her return gained national attention in the run-up to Rio. A new marketing agent also landed Shields a few endorsement deals, and this week, with a sly grin, she casually dropped the brand Powerade into her post-match interviews.

Now she’s eager to test the limits of her higher profile. She has talked about wanting to move to Florida, and trying her hand at acting. She desperately wants to see her smiling face on a cereal box. And her agent, Jamie Fritz, has talked about a “Dancing With the Stars?” appearance this fall, among other possibilities. Earlier this year, Universal Pictures acquired the rights to produce a feature film about Shields’ life story.

‘I want to inspire people’

But what about the boxing?

“The challenge for Claressa, is if she’s gonna come back and try do it three times,” said Walsh, the former Irish national team coach who was hired by USA Boxing officials last fall, with a contract that runs through the Tokyo Games. “Yeah, you can go home and say ‘I’m gonna go pro and stuff like that.’

“But once everything settles down, she might say, ‘Maybe I can do it again. Lemme see if I can do it three times.’ Who’s to say she won’t go on for another one? She’ll be only 25 come Tokyo. And she could go on to the next one, wherever — that could be in Los Angeles (bidding for the 2024 Olympics). She could become the greatest Olympian of all time in boxing.”

She’s already near the top of that list. Only 15 boxers of any nationality have won Olympic gold medals and multiple Olympics. And only three — Hungary’s Laszlo Papp (1956) and Cubans Teófilo Stevenson (1980) and Félix Savón (2000) — have done it three times.

But this Olympic pursuit was about more than adding her name to a short list. For Shields, this was about making people take notice, both of her accomplishments and what they might mean.

“When I started my quest back for 2016, I just decided that I have a great story to tell, and I’ve been through a lot in my life, so I want to inspire people,” Shields said. “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.”

Where she goes next? That’s a decision for another day. But as she headed off to march in Rio’s Closing Ceremony on Sunday night, someone asked her if she’d bring both medals with her in four years in Tokyo.

Of course, she said.

“But I don’t know if I’ll wear all three,” she added with a laugh. “Because this is killing my neck.”