Flint, Michigan is known for a few things. It has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and the second highest murder rate. In 2011, there were approximately 1,246 violent crimes in the top10 safest cities in the USA. During the same year, Flint had 2,392. It is a city where many of the stories are of the cautionary variety. It is not your typical place to foster the dreams of people striving for greatness.
But the story of U.S. boxer Claressa Shields, a Flint native, is just that, a story of greatness. With fire in her eyes and boxing in her blood (as the the daughter of an ex-fighter), Claressa has been breaking in her boxing gloves since she was eleven years old. On Friday, she'll be fighting as the youngest member of the U.S. Women's boxing team, which makes its first appearance in Olympic history this year.
When she goes into the ring on Friday, Shields will be fighting for several things.
She'll be fighting to continue a legacy that started with her father.
Clarence Shields, nicknamed "Cannonball", was a self-described
"dirty fighter," who would illegally brawl in barns and army bunkers. Her father was sent to jail when Claressa was two, and did not return until she was 9.
Upon his return, Claressa remembers her father lamenting the fact that no one in his family had taken up the torch as a boxer. She suggested that she could put on the gloves, to which her father replied
that boxing was "a man's sport".
In what might have been an early inclination of her determination in the face of adversity, she took her father's words as fuel to become a fighter. She stepped into the ring at 11, and hasn't stepped out since.
She'll be fighting the notion that age or gender equates to skill in her sport.
ESPN's boxing expert Chris Mannix wrote,
"…women's boxing has built momentum in recent years thanks to a crop of young, talented female fighters who have sprouted up all over the world."
Shields has been studying under the tutelage of Coach Jason Crutchfield, who saw something in her
from the moment she walked into the gym. "I noticed how she was punching; aggressive and fast. Her fire, her hunger… and she walked in when she was eleven."
Her Olympic slate was earned after Savannah Marshall, an England native, defeated Shields in her second round of the week. It was the first loss in her previously 26-0 career
. Despite the loss, she still qualified for the U.S. women's boxing team, which will be traveling to the games for the first time in Olympic history. She is the youngest member on that team, and the youngest fighter in the last 40 years of the sport.
While the loss in China may have shaken the young fighter, it also refocused her resolve and intensity. After the fight, she confessed to USA boxing
, "I lost one, but when I get to London, I will not make the same mistake."
She'll be fighting for herself.
As a young girl, Shields fell victim to her environment. With the absence of her father and the harsh realities of her hometown, she developed a temper that would cause her to lash out at any available opportunity. While on the streets of Flint, she found herself in street fights, suspended from school, and even in the back of a police car
when she was in sixth grade. When she finally found boxing, it provided her with the outlet she so desperately needed. "I used to shut off the world, " Shields recalled.
Things turned around when she found the gloves, the punching bag, the ring. She was able to focus the temper that had her brawling on the streets of her hometown. She found out not only where she could unleash herself, but how to do it in a way that brought her up instead of tearing her down.
When Shields steps into the ring on Friday, she'll be fighting to rise above her origins in Flint, Michigan. She'll be fighting to prove to the people around her that she can win. She'll be fighting to become a champion.
Crutchfield told WNYC
, "A coach always wants a champion. Thats why we coach. We want to help the kids and stuff, but the first thing is to have a champion. Now look, I think I got one."
"I just never thought it was going to be a girl".