Claressa Shields: Not just Olympic women’s boxing gold medalist, but ‘a first’

Fourth-Place Medal

LONDON — Claressa Shields tried to be solemn atop the podium. But she's 17 years old, a kid from Flint that people said couldn't be an Olympian, let alone the first U.S. fighter to win gold in Olympic women's boxing. Her enthusiasm punched its way through.

"I kept looking at the medal. I tried not to look at it, but …"

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Shields stared straight ahead, and darted her eyes down at the golden disc around her neck. "I was like, 'Here it go, here it go!'" she said, laughing. "It just made me laugh. I couldn't believe this medal was in front of me now. And when he put it on me, I was just like 'aaaaaaahhhh,'" she said, shimmying her shoulders wildly.

"I thought I was going to have a seizure."

Claressa Shields knows her life changed the moment that medal was placed on her. She isn't simply a champion — she's a pioneer.

Gabby Douglas gets cereal boxes because she did what Mary Lou and Carly and Nastia did before her. There is no "before" Claressa Shields.

"I'm a first," she said.

[ Photos: Women's boxing makes Olympic debut ]

Shields, 17, defeated Nadezda Torlopova of Russia on Thursday night, 19-12, to claim the gold medal in the middleweight division of the London Games.

She's the second-youngest boxer to ever win gold in either men's or women's boxing -- U.S. boxer John Fields was 16 when he won the featherweight title at the 1924 Paris Games. And, of course, she's the first American women's boxer to ever wear gold.

"I'm going to have a lot of publicity. I go into the history books. People are going to be inspired. I might have 2,000 followers when I get back from Twitter," she said. "There's a lot of stuff that's going to change. I'm going to be able to help my family out."

Shields didn't grow up with much beyond family. Flint, Mich., is the kind of city where an African-American girl could easily follow the wrong path. Shields has seen that path, because she used to run next to it every morning during her training.

"When I used to go running, I'd see all these crackheads, these drug addicts. I just didn't want to be like them. Not at all," she said. "I wanted it to be where my sister and my little brother and my mom would never have to go without a meal again. I went without a lot of meals growing up."

[ PhotosHard hits of Olympic boxing ]

So she took the boxing path instead — training early in the morning, learning a discipline she didn't quite possess and forging ahead in a sport that's in its infancy.

She began boxing at Flint's Berston Field House at 11 years old, training with coach Jason Crutchfield in a regimen that required 600 crunches and 50 pushups a day. She boxed against boys, honing her power-punching style against stronger opponents.

"I worked really hard for this medal. I can't even explain all the pain that I went through. All the people I had to deal with, and just life, period. There were people who were telling me I couldn't do this. Whenever somebody doubts me, it makes me push harder," she said.

"So, actually, the haters kinda helped."

[What They're Saying About Claressa Shields]

Whatever motivated her, Shields rolled through the London bracket after a tough opening match against Anna Laurell of Sweden (18-14). She beat on Marina Volnova of Kazakhstan, 29-15, after Volnova had eliminated Great Britain's Savannah Marshall in the first round — the same Savannah Marshall that had defeated Shields at the Women's World Boxing Championships in May.

Shields didn't appreciate being deprived of the rematch.

[ Related: USA boxing's worst results ever ]

"That's why I did the Kazakhstani girl so bad. Because she beat Savannah," she said.

The gold-medal match against Torlopova saw the Russian try and use her reach advantage to overpower Shields after an even first round.

"I wanted to see how far she was going to step up, and she stepped up in that first round," said Shields. "She thought she was stronger than me, and I had to show her that I had just a little bit of power. Then she stepped off a little bit."

Shields won the next three rounds, and the first gold for a women's boxer from the U.S.

What that means for other girls like her back in Flint isn't lost on her. What this means for her sport isn't, either.

"I wanted to represent the women well, and I think I did a great job," she said.

"I don't think there's anyone who watched the Olympics who can say women can't box, because they've seen me get down."

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