Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields’ shocking revelation

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

It is stunning to learn that Claressa Shields, the 2012 Olympic middleweight gold medalist and 2014 world amateur champion, was unable to speak until she was 5 years old.

She's now 19 and, oh, can she talk. She's going on at length about her daughter, 7-month old Klaressa. She barely finishes one thought before she races on to the next.

Shields speaks about her child the way many first-time parents do. She's almost giddy.

"I'm going to give her the best of everything, and I'm going to protect her like no mother ever protected her baby," Shields told Yahoo Sports. "I just love having her, even though it's a huge responsibility. It makes me slow down and think, and that's a good thing."

Shields plans to defend her gold medal at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. She was the only American boxing gold medalist at the 2012 Games in London and quickly became a mega-celebrity in her hometown of Flint, Mich.

Life in Flint hasn't always been so great, though. For years, it was pretty horrible for Shields.

She had no bed growing up and often slept on the floor. Her father, Clarence, was in prison for seven of the first nine years of Claressa’s life. There was little or no food in her home, she said.

And then there were the men. For the longest time, Shields couldn't bear to think of all those men who'd trekked through her home and done despicable things. She'd pushed it to the recesses of her memory, determined never to talk about what had occurred.

As she gained prominence in boxing – she began at 11 when her father told her about Muhammad Ali and how Ali's daughter, Laila, became the only one of Ali's children to box – she did plenty of interviews.

Never, though, would she talk about all those men.

"I was getting asked about my childhood a lot once I started getting interviewed, but I just shortened the story," she said. "I didn't really want to tell 'em much."

The tone of her voice, from bubbly and effervescent, has changed. As she discusses the men, she speaks slowly, somberly. This isn't what she wants to talk about, but she knows she has to talk about it.

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Not long before she represented the U.S. at the 2012 Olympics, Shields was asked to speak to a group of people around her own age at the University of Michigan's Flint campus for a program designed to help people who didn't finish high school learn life skills.

Before Shields spoke, another young woman got up and began pouring out her heart.

"She said, 'If I can make it, every one of y’all in this room can make it,' " Shields said.

Shields was the next speaker, but was captivated by the words of this young woman who had overcome extraordinary adversity to achieve success.

"She inspired me so much I knew I needed to tell my story to do the same thing she was doing," Shields said.

And so, finally, all these years later, Shields has opted to share the story of her life.

Claressa Shields’ childhood was horrific. She’s not proud of it, she said, but she is proud that what’s happened to her hasn’t stopped her from achieving her goals.

Shields was 5 years old and had begun to speak, but she suffered from a severe stuttering problem. Shields said her mother, Marcella Adams, was fighting a drug problem.

There frequently wasn't food much on the table. The family received food stamps, but the food stamps never seemed to turn into actual food.

"I honestly don't know what happened to the food stamps, but I think she sold them for drugs," Shields says.

But mostly what Shields remembers from those early years is the men. Her mother had a lot of acquaintances, she said, and every time she turned around, there was another one, it seemed.

Three of them, she said, raped and sexually molested her.

"My mom, yeah, she took care of us, but I was pretty angry," Shields said. "We never used to have enough food in the house. She always had men over. All men aren't bad men, but it was like, these guys who were her friends were like perverts and molesters. I had to deal with that for a long time. Whenever she got a new boyfriend or something and had a new friend come over, it got to the point where they'd start to touch and feel on me.

"I go to the point where I would lash out and I would tell on them. I told my Mom, but she never, ever used to believe me."

Her youngest brother's father sexually molested her every day after school. She knew it wasn't right, but didn't know how to make it stop. There was no one to confide in, no one to make it all right.

Claressa Shields threw out the first pitch for the Detroit Tigers after winning Olympic gold. (Getty Images)
Claressa Shields threw out the first pitch for the Detroit Tigers after winning Olympic gold. (Getty Images)

A turning point came when she spent a week at her Aunt Mary's home. When it was time to go home, Shields pleaded not to be made to go. Her aunt asked what was wrong. Shields was reluctant to say because if her own mother didn't believe her, why would anyone else? She just wanted to stay where it was safe.

Her aunt knew something was seriously wrong, so she gently quizzed her niece. And slowly, Claressa let it slip.

She couldn't vocalize exactly what it was, but made her points when Aunt Mary handed her a baby doll and asked her to show her what the men did to her.

Her aunt told her mother, but Shields said it still didn't resonate with her mother. Before long, Shields was shipped off to live with her grandmother.

In her grandmother, she found a friend, a confidante, a sympathetic ear.

"She used to call me Coco, and I remember her saying, 'Coco, I believe you, I do,' " Shields said. "We got to be super close, but she died. December the 21st, 2010. I still remember it."

None of the three men she said who raped and/or sexually molested her was ever prosecuted.

But little by little, as she gained recognition and confidence, she began to summon the strength to speak of her experiences. A piece here or a piece there of her life history began to emerge. She hadn't told the full story until now, but she knew that her talent and her position in life could make her a transformative figure to other women.

Becoming a mother cemented her decision. And of course, there is a story behind that.

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Her cousin, whom she refers to as "Remmi Savage," had two children when she became pregnant with a third. But she didn't want the baby. She was trying to have an abortion. She needed roughly $500, but didn't have it.

She approached Shields.

"I told her I didn't believe in abortion and so I wasn't giving her any money to do that," Shields said.

The cousin, though, didn't give up. She cobbled together $400 and met with Shields one more time, pleading for the final $100.

At that point, Shields made her a proposition.

"I really wanted a baby myself and I wanted to have one when I turned 18 right after I won the Olympics [in 2012]," she said. "But if it would have happened, it would have messed up my body going into the 2016 Olympics. I couldn't get pregnant because of that. So I said to her, 'You have the baby, and I'll adopt her.' "

Shockingly, her cousin agreed. Shields took custody of the child and began raising her as her own. She said she's in the process of a formal adoption, though she hasn't completed the process yet.

But she has had Klaressa living with her, and on days when she couldn't find a baby sitter, she’s skipped going to the gym to train and worked out in her home.

"I'd shadow box for an hour-and-a-half with the baby right there," she said.

Being responsible for a young life gave Shields an epiphany of sorts. She thought of the woman she'd heard speak at the University of Michigan-Flint. She recalled her own difficult childhood. She looked at her baby.

And she knew more than anything that she didn't want what happened to her to ever happen to anyone else.

Shields knew she couldn't completely prevent that, but she also knew that her story could serve as motivation for others who might feel trapped, helpless and have nowhere to turn. She decided to present her story to the world.

Claressa Shields plans to defend her gold medal at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. (Getty)
Claressa Shields plans to defend her gold medal at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. (Getty)

She's the girl from the down-and-out neighborhood with the horrific past. And yet she'd made it. She won a gold medal. She won the amateur world title. She is the favorite to repeat her gold in Rio. She has a bright pro career ahead of her.

Her agent, Rick Mirigian, landed her an endorsement with Audi, and she appeared in a commercial for the auto manufacturer last year.

He's in deep talks with Under Armour and McDonald's and is hopeful he'll close the UA deal soon.

"She is the definition of a strong woman, both mentally and physically," Mirigian said.

Life for her still is far from perfect. She's had a falling out with Jason Crutchfield, her longtime coach and father figure. Until Crutchfield brought her into his own home, she rarely got to sleep on a bed two nights in a row.

He saw her talent and knew she was special. He also helped her emotionally.

The split is tough on both of them. Asked if, despite their current differences, she remains grateful to Crutchfield for what he did for her, she says yes, though without a lot of conviction in her voice.

"I did a lot for him," she said.

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After winning the world championships, she's 52-1. Her only loss came in the 2012 world championships to Savannah Marshall of England.

She was eager to avenge that defeat late last year in South Korea at the 2014 world championships. Shields stopped Hellen Baleke of Uganda in just 11 seconds in her first-round match, but she never got a chance to face Marshall.

Marshall was beaten in the second round by Iaroslava Iakushina. Shields defeated Iakushina in the quarterfinals and then bested Li Quan of China in the finals.

She cried unabashedly after her victory, the first time she ever cried after a match.

"I won the Olympics, but that one loss lingered with me," Shields said. "I was happy as ever after the Olympics and it felt unbelievable, but I just never cried over it. I cried after the world championships because my record is 52 wins and one loss. That one loss just lingered with me and I couldn't shake it. I wanted that zero, and instead I have the one loss, so for two years, I wanted to fight that tournament and win it.

"It meant a lot to me to me to be able to win it. Yeah, it would have been best if I could have [defeated Marshall], but I was able to beat up the girl who beat up her, so …"

Her voice trails off. She sighs. It is a good memory, and it's clear she's reliving it in her mind.

The next two years are going to have their ups and downs. She's a new parent and finding ways to train with a baby can be tricky.

Her cousin at first agreed to be the baby's primary caregiver when Shields travels to boxing competitions, but has since changed her mind. Child care, suddenly, is as big of an issue for Shields as her left hook.

"I got to get this straightened out, but I'm lucky because I have the best friends ever," she said.

She's still a teenager in so many ways, but she's packed a lot into those 19 years and wants to continue to be an inspiration.

"If you're a girl and you're having a bad day and it seems like it's never going to get better, think of me," she says. "Look what I've done. Look what I overcame. I did it. I dreamed about reaching a goal and I made it happen. You can, too. I'm living proof of that."

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