Rio 2016: Boxing Star Claressa Shields Is Fighting for Her Dream

With one Olympic gold medal already under her belt, Shields is ready to make history at Rio. She shares why boxing makes her happy and how it has strengthened her faith. 

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Posted in , Aug 10, 2016

Olympic gold medal boxer Claressa Shields

Claressa Shields is a woman dominating in what many have long-considered a man’s sport.

At the London Olympics in 2012, a 17-year-old Shields became the first U.S. woman to win a gold medal in boxing. In fact, she was the only athlete on the men and women’s boxing teams to bring home the gold that summer. She was an underdog -- a scrappy kid from Flint, Michigan who wowed spectators with her aggressive stance and flashy bravado.

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But when she enters the ring in Brazil, her status will have changed.

“I’m the top dog and everybody’s looking to beat me,” Shields tells Guideposts.org.

Not only is the 21-year-old the reigning Olympic champ, she’s also a two-time World Champion. In 2015, she became the first American woman to win gold at the Pan American Games. Later that year, she was named USA Boxing’s Female Athlete of the Year.

“I’m just taking it one day at a time,” Shields says of her road to Rio. “Making sure I do what I’m supposed to do and that I stay focused.”

That’s been her motto for a while now.

Shields grew up in a poor neighborhood in Flint--the city now infamous for the years-long poisoned water scandal--surrounded by violence and drug abuse. She remembers her father, who had been a boxer and spent many of her early years in prison, lamenting to her when she was 11 years old, about what life would’ve been like if he had stuck with the sport. Her father shared with her the story of the legendary boxer Muhammed Ali, and his champion boxer daughter, Laila Ali.  

“When my dad told me that he was saying, ‘Okay Muhammad Ali had a daughter who took after him because he boxed. I box, so I want you to take after me,’” Shields explains.

She says her first day at the gym felt like coming home. Bullied in school, boxing helped her release her anger and build self-esteem.

“It brought me happiness,” Shields says adding that she likes how “simple” the sport is. “You go to the gym, you train hard, you go to a fight [and] you win. It’s just that simple. Life is a little bit different; you can be nice to everybody but everybody is not going to be nice to you. You can love everybody but not everybody is going to love you. Boxing is not tricky like that.”

In a ring full of boys, Shields had to fight harder to stand out. Skinny with short arms, she was given the name T-Rex because she was so aggressive. (She’d much rather be called Baby Sugar Ray after her idol, Sugar Ray Leonard.)

She credits boxing with helping her find focus and a path out of her violent childhood. The sport also helped her find faith.

“It’s one of the reasons why I got baptized,” Shields says. As a young girl just beginning to fight competitively, she couldn’t understand why she wasn’t winning more bouts. Her aunt suggested she pray about it.

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“I was like, ‘You know what anybody that can help me with my grades in school and make boxing easier is somebody to confide in,” Shields says. She started reading the Bible and found an even deeper relationship with God.

“As a child I almost felt broken,” Shields says. “I almost felt that my life would always be as bad as it was and that there was no way out. I thank God that I found boxing because boxing was my way out. And boxing helped me find something to deal with the anger and deal with the sadness that I had deep inside.”

Boxing isn’t pretty. Most of Shields’ meets end with black eyes, bloodied lips and sore muscles. She knows this, but she hopes that her accomplishments in the sport and the strength she’s gained from competing can give hope to the people of Flint – a community still suffering – and to young girls dreaming of a better life and a stronger self.

“I tell my story so they know your life is about your decisions,” Shields says. “It doesn’t matter if your dad went to prison. It doesn’t matter if your mom was an alcoholic or if she abused drugs. It doesn’t matter because your life is your life. If we put in hard work and if we pray on it, then everything will end well.”

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