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From troubled upbringing to fighting for the gold, Shields ready for challenge

by | Senior College Basketball Blogger
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Claressa Shields (red) scores one of her wins at the U.S. Women's Olympic Boxing trials. (US Presswire)  
Claressa Shields (red) scores one of her wins at the U.S. Women's Olympic Boxing trials. (US Presswire)  

She is abnormally strong, and has been for years. This goes beyond the literal definition of the word, of course, because we’re about to examine a 17-year-old female boxer all-too-aptly from Flint, Mich., born to a mother who she does not live with and to a father who spent a significant chunk of her, and his, life in prison. She is a fighter who has lived in more homes than she cares to count (or remember), is curious to discover more of who she can be while comfortable in knowing what’s she’s already become: the embodiment of positivity and prosperity for a place that continually needs it. Most immediately, she is entering the first major phase of becoming the face of her sport for the next decade. Claressa Shields is favored to win a gold medal at the Olympics next month. If she does, she’ll be the first -- ever. The 2012 Games are the initial Olympiad holding competition for women’s boxing.

Shields, the event's youngest competitor, will box in the heaviest weight class (165 pounds; there are also 112- and 132-pound divisions). Shields boasts a 26-1 (14 knockouts) record, the singular loss being Shields' most recent verdict on the canvas, a defeat at the Olympic trial fights in China in mid-May. That loss meant everything to her before she even knew what it really meant. Losing was so alien to Shields, she’s unable to interpret how it will happen again.

Family ... and father

Shields' Olympic quest unknowingly began the day she met her father. Clarence Shields had recently been released from prison after a seven-year stint for breaking and entering (to this day Claressa said she doesn't know any more about the crime and doesn't care about what he did). Claressa was young, but she knew of the man. She was 9, and her memory of the day remains clear and inclusive of details. It was at "Granny’s" house -- one of the many places she would eventually live -- and earlier that afternoon she'd violently tussled with an older cousin. Shields still remembers what dad’s braids looked like, because she saw them up close the minute they met, once he lifted Claressa up, put her on his knee, and sister Brianna on the other. It was 2004, and the man who would eventually try to prevent Claressa from becoming a boxer was immediately attempting to balance a family.

A relationship soon developed between Claressa and Clarence, but it wasn’t consistent. Like he'd been all her life, Clarence soon again became an absentee father. She didn't know why, and in truth, it didn't much bother her. Eventually, Claressa insisted on knowing the reason, though, and it was while she shared a car ride with her dad that he confessed to embarrassment. Clarence preferred not to be around his children when he didn't have money, and money in his pockets didn’t come frequently, easily or stay there long. The concept of money being tied to relationships and family was completely foreign to Claressa. She didn't care about the cash. Even now, when she stands to step into a lot of it, Shields said money doesn't drive her.

Her father, though, he'd disappear for two or three months, then pop up again out of nowhere. Despite this, Claressa remained OK with the situation. Never got mad at him for finding reasons or excuses to move in and out of her life, showing up sporadically like a renewed series on television. To this day, she doesn't begrudge him, not for his absence for the first nine years of her life, and not for stretches of absence that followed after it, which included an arrest earlier this year for failing to pay child support. "To me, he was never a bad guy," Shields said. "I spent a whole lot of time with him, and then he'd disappear. To me, I was like, If he wants to be a father, OK, but if not, well I went a whole long time without a dad. I can accept it and live with it."

Shields won 154-pound division junior Olympic titles in 2010 and 2011. (Getty Images)  
Shields won 154-pound division junior Olympic titles in 2010 and 2011. (Getty Images)  
Shields has three siblings from three groups of parents -- all share the same mother, Marcella Adams. Shields' older brother, Artis Mack, is 21; her 15-year-old sister, Brianna, is the only sibling that shares Clarence and Marcella as mother and father; and the youngest, Dusable Lewis, is 14. In the last year, Shields has found four roofs of friends and family to live under. She can’t count the exact number of places she’s lived in since she was born, but is confident the number exceeds 10. The reason behind so many of the moves stems from Adams’ penchant to pick up and leave from one neighborhood to the next -- and back again. Even now Shields said she doesn’t know why mom gets stir-crazy. When she was younger, Adams would ping-pong between residing in Flint and Beecher, Mich., the two being a 15-minute drive apart.

One day, like that, it'd be off to a new location.

"Mom has more good days than bad," Shields said, and that pattern became a detriment to her boxing dreams.

The relationship with her mom is good, in general ["Some days she decides to be nice and some days she don't," Shields said], but oddly arranged from an outsider's perspective. Shields speaks with Adams all the time; her mom lives just up the street from the F.W.C. Berston Field House, the gym where Shields has trained at and molded herself into an Olympic boxer over the course of the past six years.

"Whenever I would go home, by mom would be like, 'Whatever you want to do, do it,'" Shields said. "Mom isn’t strict. She trusts me, and I really don't do nothing bad, but it's like, I thought I needed some structure in my life."

After living out the first half of her freshman year with her Granny -- an arrangement that came to a tragic end when her grandmother died on Dec. 21, 2010 -- Shields’ grades began slipping after she moved in with her mother. She wasn’t eating right, and there was too much distraction for someone who wasn’t seeking it. Home life with mom was making Shield’s fledgling boxing career harder, and in order to change her lifestyle, Shields and Shields alone came to the decision to leave the nest -- as much as you could call her default living situation a nest, or if that situation was even the default -- and arrange a more-rigid regimen.

"You can't live boxing at the gym, then go home and not eat right and be well," Shields said. "The decision to leave was all me. Nobody needs to feel sorry for me."

Shields lived from January 2011 to early November of 2011 with her mother before moving in with a family friend, Paula Williams, endearingly referred to by Shields as "Ms. Paula." She shared the house with Williams' four children, and after six weeks there, Shields decided to move into her aunt’s house. Aunt Tammy is Adams' sister, and she again shared bedrooms and bathrooms with four other children, three of them her cousins, one her younger brother, Dusable. By the time May came and Shields was set to make the Olympics, the final decision on Shields’ living situation was made. She was to move in with her boxing coach, Jason Crutchfield, his girlfriend and their 6-year-old son, Jayden, in the Flint suburb of Mount Morris.

"She needed it. I've been kind of hard on her lately," Crutchfield said. "I’m focused on getting this gold medal for her, so I wanted to lighten up the load off."

Now, Shields has constant coaching in her life -- which she seeks, but doesn't decidedly need. It's an arrangement Shields has sought since she knew living with mom wasn't amounting to constant peace and focus. She'll stay with Crutchfield until June 27, when they’ll head to Colorado for pre-Olympics training. Once she returns from London, the plan as of now is to continue to live with Crutchfield for her senior year at Northwestern High School.

She'll be enrolled for honor classes in the fall.

Olympic trail

Facing the first loss of her professional career, Shields thought, They're cheating me.

She'd never lost, going all the way back to the sixth grade, when she started boxing for fun after a bet with a best friend. Shields and the boy wagered she couldn't last a week training at Berston. Her father, who’d been a boxer/street fighter for years, said no when he learned of it. Boxing was a man's sport as far as he saw it, and his daughter should not be involved. That's when Claressa learned to fight back, before she really knew how to use her fists.

"I told him, 'If you’re going to give me a reason not to do something, give me a better reason than just that I'm a girl, 'cause that don't fly,'" Shields said.

Father knew he couldn't grandstand, given his history. Shields immediately grew to love boxing, and within two weeks of her first trip to the gym, Crutchfield insisted that he train her; the talent was too obvious to ignore and too precious to let someone else mentor. In the fall of 2009, Crutchfield knew Shields -- then 14 -- was capable of making the Olympics, and he didn’t feel like setting a goal for the 2016 Games was necessary. A letter that arrived at the gym from the Michigan Local Boxing Committee detailed the August '09 decision that women’s boxing was now an approved sport for London’s Games. At the time, Shields was still going through puberty and a few figures away from her current size and weight.

"I told her point blank, you're going to be 165, and you're going to the Olympics," Crutchfield said. From there, it became more serious. Crutchfield picked certain events for Shields to fight in, and the trek began. Shields arrived on the national scene when she won back-to-back Junior Olympic titles in the 154-pound division in 2010 and 2011. They were also the victories that made her serious about pursuing boxing beyond something that was an obsessive hobby.

In February, Shields fought at the U.S. Olympic trials. Her first opponent toppled was previous national champion, Franchon Crews. Shields' second opponent at the trials was Andrecia Wasson, the 2010 world champion in women's middleweight. Shields busted through that fight and two more, ultimately winning the bracket to most everyone’s surprise. This was the true, first breakthrough set of performances in Shields' career.

In April, Shields earned her biggest victory to date. The Women's Elite Continental Championship (WECC) win didn't put her into the Olympics; it made her a favorite for them. Canada's Mary Spencer, 27, was the top-ranked boxer in the world. She'd won the WECC three years going. Then Shields got in the ring with her, in the middle of a Cornwall, Ontario, gym, slugged her way to a 27-14 conquest and an infatuating belief. Shields had just beaten the best, and now she could be the greatest female boxer in the world -- even at 17.

Learning to fall

What’s happening? Why am I fighting almost everyone in this gym right now?

It was half the world away from Flint, and the familiar walls, smells, lights and amateur skills of Berston Field House. Shields' win over Spencer qualified her for the International Boxing Association's (AIBA, sic) women's world championships. She was the youngest boxer there, just like she was the youngest boxer at the U.S. Olympic trials, only this time her youth precluded her from understanding patience and the realization that every boxer has to learn to fall at some point.

The delectable irony comes here: Shields' Olympic fate was determined by the only woman to beat her in the ring to this point in her career. Great Britain's Savannah Marshall defeated Shields 14-8 in the second round of fights. But because Marshall managed to make the middleweight final, by default, Shields became an Olympian because all other American boxers at trials lost in the same round as her and no one else’s opponent reached as far as Shields'. (All countries eligible had a two-boxer quota to meet.)

"It was an eye-opener, for sure, you know what I mean?" Shields said. "The only girl I was thinking about was Mary Spencer, and I beat her."

It was a case of overconfidence. Could you blame her? A 17-year-old girl who'd never lost. Now, she's thankful for the way it happened. Shields believes God wanted her to watch, to not have control, to realize things in her life will happen that she can’t control and that it’s not because any one thing is unfairly against her. The fact her most significant victory came when she was in street clothes sitting in a plastic seat, her fate squeezed between the balled fists of the only woman who's ever bested her, is not lost on Claressa Shields. That's when she really knew how good women can be at boxing, and how wrong her dad was to keep her from it early on.

Shields credits Granny for first opening her mind about breaking down gender roles. And since she first defied her father's wishes and won the bet with her friend, lasting well over a week in the Berston gym, training with over-sized gloves and smacking heavy bags for fun, Shields has dodged doubts about her ability and skill level to fighters her size -- and sex -- ever since. Putting expectation levels on her game is an intangible hypothetical, because Crutchfield and others who’ve helped her over the years aren't entirely sure of what her ceiling is. They've never seen someone so young be so strong and continue to ascend in ability and strength, skills that became overwhelming once that matched Shields' unflinching willpower. Leading up to these Olympics, Claressa Shields is an irreversible crescendo.

Flint's emblem

According to the FBI's most recent statistics, Flint has the highest violent crime rate in the country for a city of its size (100,000). It also owns the highest murder per capita and is among the hardest-hit areas in terms of unemployment rate. Good people more than pepper the city, but story after story has trickled out in the past decade on circumstances that have led to the rotting of Flint. The city represents what the American Dream would look like if you turned it inside out.

Shields has the energy and stamina of a 4-5 year older average male fighter. (US Presswire)  
Shields has the energy and stamina of a 4-5 year older average male fighter. (US Presswire)  
And then, here's this symbol. This 17-year-old boxer who ties a town's promise and reputation around her wrists and does more than keep hope alive; she revives conversation about better days that can come. She is a constantly moving and improving source of energy and optimism that strengthens the city’s morale and marrow. It's this girl ready to take flight with her fists, still with no intentions now of putting this place behind her.

Shields is one of the few homegrown athletes who can help Flint in so many ways, from good PR to actual business-building. Boxing gyms are expecting spikes in attendance this summer and into 2013 because of what Shields has done, can do and will do. The community has arranged a reception for Shields -- a sort of town acknowledgment and party and well-wishing congregation -- before she leaves for Olympic training at the end of the month.

Shields isn't afraid of her city. She runs around in it, through it, all around it, sometimes going for five- or six-mile lopes. There's a layer of protection provided for her there, one she accepts, and in exchange, her increased fame and presence emboldens the social fabric. For four years now, she's known from afar as the "Boxer Girl." Never once has she felt threatened or worried about getting robbed. But don't mistake this for naïveté. Shields knows people who've been shot, and others who've been shot and killed. "When people talk to me, like, I talked to a lot of dudes who people think are bad," Shields said. "But at the same time, I know some of the guys who are part of the violence, and they push me to stay in the ring."

There are two rings at work here. One outer ring surrounding the physical, actual boxing ring that's built Shields into an emblem. The other is a palpable shield of locals and a community's desire that won't let anyone spoil one of the best things about Flint that the town's seen in years.

Shields is still young, and her quotes reflect her matter-of-fact attitude about sharing what life is like for her. There is no filter, and that's a good thing. She remains proud of who she is and the choices she makes -- or doesn't.

"I have friends smoking stuff, but they’d never offer me a drink, or hit me up to smoke a blunt," she said. "That doesn't help me with what I can achieve."

Shields' arsenal

To get a sense of how abnormally strong Shields is, consider: Crutchfield said her explosiveness, energy and stamina are that of an average male fighter four or five years her senior. Aside from the speed and the quickness, Shields has become a world-class fighter in such a short period of time because of her innate ability to remain close to her opponent while on defense. Crutchfield said her lack of punch-and-run (something a lot of boxers intuitively revert to) is an uncommon aggressive tactic that seldom backfires. The final critical cog in Shields is a consummate willpower that Crutchfield hasn’t seen much in any fighter he’s come across. He has no explanation for it.

"I wish I could say, but I don’t know, she just has this desire and determination to beat somebody," he said. "And then there's this calmness. Her ability to focus on what's she's fighting is really, really … it’s kind of outstanding. No matter what's going on around her, and what's happening, she's able to focus on what's happening in the ring."

Crutchfield, 48, knows boxing well. He started in the sport in 1982, won two Golden Gloves, attended national competitions three times and was 8-1-1 with six knockouts in his pro career. But nearly 20 years ago, injuries forced him to give it up. He took a break from boxing in the early '90s, then got back into training again around seven years ago, just before a young girl, determined to win a childish bet, stepped into his gym.

For the past 12 years, Crutchfield worked from near-dawn to 5 p.m. in cable construction, and the past six years have seen him go from that job to Berston until all the night fighters get their sweat out and punches in. Over the years, Crutchfield estimates he’s trained more than 150 boxers, with his current crop at 15. All pale in comparison to Shields.

"In terms of expression, she'll let all of it go out in that ring," he said. "She wants to be better than the men at boxing, and some of the things that she’s gone through have inspired her."

The training regimens began as something simple but effective; nothing like what Shields puts herself through these days. It starts with morning jaunts in Flint as the sun comes up, sometimes even before that, then continues from 6 to 8:30 p.m. many nights of the week at Berston. Rounds and rounds on the heavy bag, mixed in with jump rope, crunches and lap sessions around the complex that amount to near-mile runs. Shields doesn’t want to reveal some of her training techniques, but said she's only intensified her routines after traveling to the Manny Pacquaio-Timothy Bradley fight in Las Vegas a few weeks ago. It was there she met Mike Tyson, former Olympic gold medal boxer Andre Ward and a bundle of other renowned boxers, some of whom are headed to London.

She couldn't believe everyone knew her name.

A legacy still to be made

Shields' legacy has been made locally, but the impact she can achieve beyond the borders of her city and state rest on her performance beginning Aug. 2. Despite the pressure on her -- and plenty if self-inflicted -- Shields remains remarkably easygoing, laid-back and humorous for a girl who routinely collapses her palms. It's the great dichotomy, after all. In a conversation, Shields is much more prone to laugh or joke than find a moment of introspection or dwell on a memory tinged with sadness. For instance, take the nickname. Shields' ring moniker is T-Rex, one she accepted after initially rebuffing one’s attempt to call her Reese Cup.

"I was like, "Nah, you can't call me that, bro. That's a stripper's name!'" she said, taking a few seconds to laugh off the memory. There's a lot of that with her. She's managed to keep the bad stuff beyond a thrusting reach. Her father and younger sister do not get along, and her mother and father aren't frequent communicators. Shields said Brianna frequently got kicked out of school and resents their dad. Brianna was "whooped" by her dad frequently a few years ago, while Claressa says she only got "one whoopin'" from Clarence, and that came over a disagreement to who broke a broomstick.

When she brings up the story, she laughs it off, then utilizes that impeccable memory again. It's that confrontation with her dad over a broomstick, eight years ago, when everyone realized fun-loving Claressa Shields was angry. Something was born inside and needed to find a healthy way out. For her, fortunately it has. And it's allowed her to remain straight, positive and fun-loving. "Sometimes I laugh so I won’t cry," Shields said.

This is the sadder side of Shields' story, but not the one she's ready to tell in full. Despite her eagerness to share details of her journey, the spotlight is earning inches in diameter and intensity of brightness by the week. She's been approached not only for human interest pieces in print, but has also done audio and video accounts -- documentaries -- about what it's like to live in Flint, be a girl, and be a girl who chose boxing and became really, really good at.

Drama, death and movement has surrounded 17 years of her life, yet Shields refuses to retreat. Even when attacking, she is on the defense. She will stand there. She will take those hits. She's even learned to fall, and it's OK. Then … here she comes again. Shields is still growing. She's ever-learning. She's hitting back 10 times harder -- and laughing.

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