At the age of 17, a young woman from Flint, Michigan overcame inner city struggles to win gold at the 2012 London Olympics, which were the first Games to award medals for women’s boxing.
Not only did she win once, Claressa Shields went back-to-back, winning another Olympic gold medal in 2016. As the Tokyo Olympics have reached the medal rounds for boxing, Shields — the sport’s first undisputed champion in two divisions as a pro — reflects on her international experience to ESPN’s Eric Woodyard.
Editor’s note: This has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Losing still doesn’t sit well with me. Three months before my Olympic debut, I experienced that feeling for the first time as an amateur. It happened against England’s Savannah Marshall at the 2012 Women’s World Championships in China. I vowed to never have that happen again.
So, within those three months, I really had a chip on my shoulder because the dynamic around me changed. It went from people believing in me and thinking I could win gold, and then boom, I lost my quarterfinal fight at the World Championships. But I was still eligible to make it to the Olympics because I ranked higher than the other girls in my contingent.
So there were all these believers, and now all of these doubters. I never lost that dream. I wanted to be the first Olympic gold medalist for women’s boxing at 165, but there was so much doubt around me.
Before boarding the plane to the Olympics, I remember speaking with my childhood trainer, Jason Crutchfield from Flint, and honestly I was scared. I just remember talking to him the night before and he was like, “You’re gonna do it. Just have belief. Remove all of the doubt out of you, Ress.”
Him telling me those words made me so emotional because that was what I really needed to hear. He was just telling me “you’re the best,” and I ended up crying as I walked off from him. I didn’t cry in front of him, but I did as I walked off.
All I kept saying to myself was: “Remove all doubt. Believe in yourself. You’ve got this.”
So, as I got on the plane, there were so many people around me, I felt like they were all kind of doubting me, so I really just kept my headphones on. I was listening to Meek Mill and Nicki Minaj. Back then, her “Pink” album had just come out, so I was banging her song “Last Chance,” and also “Big Dreams” by Meek Mill. I had those two songs on replay the whole 12-hour ride to London.
Have you ever gone somewhere and felt like you’ve arrived? That’s how I felt. I felt like nothing could stop me. Nothing could mess with my mental state. I felt like I was just ready to conquer.
While attending the opening ceremonies, you find yourself freaking out because you’re seeing all of these great athletes. You see Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Serena Williams, Allyson Felix and all these great athletes.
In your mind, you’re going crazy, but then it hits you that they’re here for the same reason you’re here, so you’re just as great as them. When Carmelo Anthony knew my first and last name, and Kevin Durant knew my name, I’m like “Yo, what the heck? This is crazy.” Now, the dynamic that everybody is a celebrity has left me and I feel that I’m there for the same reason that they are, and we’re all here to get Olympic gold medals. There’s no reason for me to feel weird.
When I got the first draw, I learned that I was fighting against the tallest girl in the tournament, Anna Laurell, who was six-foot tall.
Everybody kept reminding me how I struggled against tall fighters. But I knew her game plan, and mine was to disrupt her game plan. So I got on the inside, I landed the hard shots. I used my jab, my head movement and I came out on top, 18-14. That was my hardest fight of the Olympics.
As I was getting ready for my gold medal match, I saw how the dynamic around me was changing. Those who doubted me, started acting like they had belief in me.
I really hated the fake vibes. I felt it from my Olympic teammates, some of the coaches and from people at home also. People walk up to me these days telling me, “I lost $100 betting on Russia to beat you.”
So, I felt the vibes while getting ready for the gold medal match.
As I was walking to the ring for my final fight at the Olympics, I was telling myself “if you get silver, maybe you won’t have so many fakers and doubters and all this weird stuff around that you don’t want. But if you get gold, it’s going to be all of these people that are gonna come into your life. All these new cousins and all this new stuff.”
I had to make a decision on whether or not I wanted to get gold or silver because the power was in my hands. Then right before I got into the ring, I took a deep breath and I was like, “you know what, I’m gonna go ahead and get this gold medal, and however my life changes after this, I’m just going to accept it and deal with it the best way I can. There is no way I’m about to miss out on this opportunity because I’m scared of how many fake people will come around.”
So I decided that I was going to be an Olympic champ.
What I felt once I won gold was internal happiness for the first time in my life. Nobody could take that happiness from me. I felt like I didn’t waste my time. I trained just the right way that I had to. I gave everything I had and did everything right to be an Olympic gold medalist.
When I say I did everything right, I was praying every day. I was in my Bible. I wasn’t mistreating nobody. I ran. I worked hard. I put God first and now everything that I sowed, I’m reaping now. That’s what it felt like. So, when they put the gold medal around my neck, I felt a big sense of relief, like, “Oh, thank you God, all of this is over.” All of this wondering and waiting for this day, because I had been waiting for it since I was 13 years old. I’m finally what I said I wanted to be — the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal at 165 pounds, and to do it at just 17 years old, it was the best feeling ever.
When I was 17, I didn’t have to deal with nothing. I was different back then. I was more strong-headed and I really didn’t even understand social media that much. Like, I didn’t even know that I was verified on social media until I was about 18 or 19, so I really didn’t understand or really care for it. I didn’t start dealing with the mental part of it until I was about 20 or 21, leading into the second Olympics to where now it’s like I need my peace of mind.
I need breaks from the internet. I need breaks from business. I need breaks from family. I need to just be by myself and do whatever I want to do that makes me happy. It’s really hard to do that when you’re an athlete and everybody is kind of relying on you and depending on you. I just remember somebody telling me that whatever the problems were at home with family, friends or in a relationship, they’re gonna be there after you’re done with the Olympics. You don’t have to deal with them right now, but just know that you’ll deal with them sooner or later.
I always chose to deal with everything later. It’s like, “look, right now, I’ll put in all the hard work for me to have a great time at the Olympics, have a great time fighting, and just enjoy this moment because the Olympics only last for 2-3 weeks, and then you go back to regular life and you don’t get to run into Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant when you go home.” So, I really would just tell myself to enjoy that moment. It took a lot of prayer and a lot of cutting my phone off and giving my phone to somebody.
Olympic coach Kay Koroma took my phone plenty of times, and that was one of the best things he did for me because it eliminated my distractions. It makes you really focus on what you need to focus on. I’m just thankful that Coach Kay was there to do that for me and make sure that I remember what’s important. Having that support person was always great for me.
My mind had gotten so much stronger ahead of my second Olympics appearance in 2016, and we had gotten a new coach named Billy Walsh, who is still with the team now. His first time meeting me, he said, “Claressa, it’s going to be harder to win the second Olympic gold medal than it was for the first one,” and I checked him.
“Woah. For one, don’t you ever talk to me like that, and two, this second Olympics is gonna be so much easier than my first Olympics for a few reasons: I’m mentally stronger, I have more experience, I’m taller, I’m stronger … there’s no way that these girls are going to be able to even stand up to me in the 2016 Olympics,” I responded.
I had put in so much hard work, so much dedication and spent so much time with God, and when you have that time with God, he just sends you these different messages and feelings to where you know it’s your time. I knew that I was gonna win the second Olympics and it was way easier.
I elevated my game so much throughout those four years. I continued to learn, study, and get better. I learned how to throw my jab, right hand and upper cut in 10 different ways. I mastered my boxing to do whatever I had to do to win. People only had one kind of style, but when you become Olympic champion, you’ve got to learn how to switch it up, so I learned all these different ways on how I could fight. Nobody had seen all of my fighting styles yet, but I knew I had whatever style I needed to come out on top for 2016, and that’s just what I did.
When something hasn’t been done, you feel like it’s impossible. So I was making what was impossible become possible. I decided every fight that I was going to go out there and win, and there’s no way that these girls can stop me. I mean, I ran through everybody like a truck. It was the best.
It was great being on that world stage to be able to inspire younger girls, because my whole goal was for people to see me box in 2012 so that they wouldn’t cancel women’s boxing in the Olympics in 2016. Then, I’m like if I do it again, they’re definitely not going to cancel women’s boxing for 2020. I wanted to show them the levels of women’s boxing, and I felt like they hadn’t seen it yet, and I was right.
I got the Most Outstanding Boxer at the 2016 Olympics. I showed them that, “yeah, women’s boxing is looked down upon, but look what Claressa Shields can do.” I wanted to show that you can do anything that you put your mind to whether you’re a woman, a man or whatever. I just wanted to make a platform for women. Right now the blueprint is that if you fight as an amateur, you can go to the Olympics, and no matter what happens there, now you can turn pro because you have that Olympic pedigree and you can be a world champion. At first, there wasn’t a blueprint for women’s boxing. Now, I’ve been able to create the blueprint and it feels great to be a role model.
To everybody that’s fighting, this is the big stage. Leave all the doubt at home and go big or stay home. When you go out there, give your all and remove all the doubt. Whether you’re losing or whatever, remember that one punch can change the game. Go out there and do you and have fun. Know that you’re doing this for you more than you’re doing it for anybody else.