Claressa Shields is just your average, everyday 17-year-old Olympic boxing gold medalist

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

The first thing you notice about Claressa Shields is that she laughs.

A lot.

A trip to the mall, a favorite day out for plenty of 17-year-old girls, is not always so simple for Shields.

"I never thought there would be days I didn't want to go outside, or go to the mall, because I didn't have privacy," she said. "It's not horrible, but I don't have much privacy. It's like I'm a celebrity."

The thought that she's a celebrity causes her to break out in giggles. It's hard for anyone who had fame suddenly thrust upon them, but it is particularly difficult for a 17-year-old high school senior.

In particular, it's tough for a 17-year-old high school senior who lives in a city with one of the most depressed economies in the country. Shields is a bona fide celebrity in her native Flint, Mich., and hardly a day goes by when she doesn't pose for a photo or sign an autograph.

Even adults more than twice or three times her age want to stand next to her, to pat her on the back, to congratulate her.

"It's craaaaaazy, man," she says, cackling uproariously.

Shields won the middleweight gold medal at the London Olympics in 2012, the first Games in which women were eligible to box. In the process, she became the first American since Andre Ward in 2004 to win a boxing gold.

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It's not often that a gold medal winner roams the halls at a high school, but that's what happens at Flint Northwestern High School, where Shields is finishing her senior year and planning for college.

She promised her father, Bo, before she left for London that school would be a priority. And when she returned, only a couple of weeks after winning the gold, she was back in class.

"She never missed a beat," said Cheryl Adkins, the principal at Flint Northwestern. "She won the gold medal in August, so by the time she got back – school didn't start until after Labor Day – everybody was kind of used to it. There were parades and rallies she had to go to, but when school started, she never missed a beat.

"It was the same Claressa from last year. We've talked a lot with her about understanding that she has to prepare for the future and that this isn't her final step. And she's done great with that."

A finalist for the Sullivan Award as the country's top amateur athlete – voting closes on Sunday, her 18th birthday – she's adapted to her "normal life" remarkably easily.

She had one semester, Adkins said, where her grades dipped slightly. And that was it.

"I wasn't happy to see that, but she had a lot of things going on in her life," Adkins said. "I'm fortunate in my relationship with her because I've had her since middle school and we have a very good understanding of each other. I know the kind of potential she has beyond boxing.

"She's a bright girl. And that marking period after her grades went down said a lot to me about her. She looked at those grades and she said, 'This is not me. I've never done this before.' I told her she had to focus on her education again or it would be her. And you know what? The next semester, her grades went right back up."

She plans to go to college and, instead of turning professional, go for a repeat of her gold medal performance at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The notoriety of being an Olympic champion has put a certain amount of pressure on her, she said. Even just winning a fight now isn't enough.

"It's definitely going to be harder to defend the gold medal than it was to win the first one," she said. "When I get in the ring now, I go in there as the Olympic gold medalist. Everyone just assumes I should be knocking everyone out right away.

"Everyone thinks, 'Oh, she won the gold medal, she's superior,' and if someone goes the whole distance with me, they're given a lot of credit for that."

Shields has gotten plenty of credit, but when she hasn't, she hasn't been shy about asking for it. On an HBO broadcast following the Olympics, analyst Max Kellerman referred to Ward as the last American medalist.

Shields howled in protest. Kellerman called her to apologize and then corrected his error on the next broadcast.

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She hopes ultimately to have Kellerman call one of her fights. One of her goals is to headline a show on either HBO, Showtime or ESPN.

Adkins believes it's within her reach.

"Claressa had to grow up quickly and she made some wise choices in her life," Adkins said. "She set her mind on her goal and she figured out how to achieve it. She told me that she wanted it so badly, she decided to sleep down at the boxing gym. She would use the ring as her bed and shower up in the gym so she would be in the boxing environment.

"This young woman is a great athlete, obviously, but I think she's going to be successful in her life because she's so totally dedicated to whatever it is she puts her mind on, and she is so intelligent. That's a very powerful combination she has going for her"

Even for one with an outgoing and effervescent personality such as Shields, success is no laughing matter.

"No one is going to give you a thing," she said. "If you want something, you have to work for it like it's the most important thing, ever."

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