For Olympic Boxer Claressa Shields, Round 2 Brings New Expectations : The Torch At 17, boxer Claressa Shields won gold in the 2012 London Olympics. But it didn't change her life as much as she thought it would. After she returned home to Flint, Michigan, she thought: Now what?
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For Olympic Boxer Claressa Shields, Round 2 Brings New Expectations

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For Olympic Boxer Claressa Shields, Round 2 Brings New Expectations

For Olympic Boxer Claressa Shields, Round 2 Brings New Expectations

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Winning an Olympic gold medal can be a financial life changer, but, for many athletes, the reality is different. U.S. boxer Claressa Shields knows that reality. We first met Claressa on this program four years ago. Back then, she was a high school student from Flint, Mich., with a big goal.


CLARESSA SHIELDS: I have this dream. I'm in England, London, and it's the finals in the Olympics. I can hear the announcer. I mean, they're going to say, like, and the first woman Olympian at 165 pounds is Claressa Shields. And in my dream, I'm looking around, and I'm just thinking to myself like how did I get here?

SIEGEL: Claressa was 17 when she recorded that. Our partner, Radio Diaries, had given her a tape recorder as she fought to make it to the 2012 Olympics in London. It was the first time women were allowed to box in the games, and Claressa Shields made history.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ladies and gentlemen, the winner by a score of 19 points to 12 and Olympic gold medalist in the red corner representing the United States of America, Claressa Shields.

SIEGEL: Well, now another summer Olympics is just over a week away in Rio. Producer Sue Jaye Johnson says Shields has a different view going into these games. She's been following the boxer for the past four years, and she brings us this update.

SUE JAYE, BYLINE: When I first met Claressa, I was in a dimly lit auditorium in Toledo, Ohio, photographing the women who were trying to be the first to box in the Olympics. A quiet teenage girl with short hair, thick biceps and a determined stare entered the ring. It was her first fight against adult women.

I hadn't seen anyone fight so fiercely, so unrestrained. She dispatched her opponent before the end of the first round. Claressa had been training in the basement of a small neighborhood gym in Flint, one of the most dangerous cities in the country. Few people had seen her fight. Less than a year later, she was in London with a gold medal around her neck.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I just remember being on the podium and I'm like - this medal was huge, and it was so heavy. And when he put it on, I just held it and looked at it and was like - I thought I was about to go crazy.

I wanted to jump down and run around the ring and jump on the ropes and put my hands in the air holding the gold medal just shaking and laughing. And it was like somebody handed me a million dollars and said, here you go.

JOHNSON: Claressa slept with the gold medal wrapped around her wrist for weeks. After years working toward the singular goal, she'd achieved it. But just days after the Olympics, Claressa remembered sitting on her coach's living room and thinking, now what?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: You know, I guess I've won the Olympic gold medal, and I don't even know what to think about now. You know, I don't even know what to dream about. That was my dream for years. You know, I was literally going to sleep, and I would see a lot of black. Like, I wasn't able to dream because my dream had been accomplished. Now I'm like, what do I do now?

JOHNSON: There she was back in high school, living with her coach because it was too unstable at home. Claressa was getting a thousand dollars a month as a member of the U.S. national boxing team. But those earnings were going to help her family, pay her mom's water bill, help her brother in prison.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Everybody was just saying, you know, you should be signing with Nike. You should be on the Wheaties box. How come - aren't you in this magazine? Why aren't you in that magazine? And it got to the point where I just kind of shut everybody out and was like I can't hear that no more. I really can't dwell on what I didn't get, you know?

JOHNSON: Why didn't any of those things happen? Why no endorsements? Why no money? Why no sponsorship?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I don't know. I don't know why it didn't happen. I was just kind of taking it as I wasn't ready for it, I guess. You know, just like the ideal woman - I wasn't. I wasn't the pretty girl, you know, who wears their hair straight, and I don't know. I just know that that wasn't - I guess I wasn't what they were looking for.

JOHNSON: After one tournament, Claressa and her coach met with USA Boxing officials about a PR strategy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I know you're trying to get sponsorships and endorsements, etc.

JOHNSON: They had one suggestion. Claressa should stop talking about how she likes to beat people up.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: You want me to stop saying that?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes. Stop saying that.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When it comes to somebody wanting to get behind me and say I want this person to represent my brand...


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I understand that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Right, right. I understand what she's saying.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You understand what I'm saying.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's like an image thing - just kind of tone it down a little bit.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Their definition of a woman, you know - you can be tough, but not too tough. And it's like if I want to get in there and kick a girl's ass, I'm going to kick her ass. That's it. You might as well had told me to start punching my opponents a little bit softer when I fight them, so people won't feel so threatened.

JOHNSON: It's one thing for a girl to fight, but to admit that you like it - that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Until 2012, boxing was the last male-only sport in the Olympics. Women in the ring - it's a stretch for advertisers and promoters and even many fans. Even Claressa's own father had trouble with it, and he was a boxer.

Her dad had been in prison most of her childhood. In her radio diary, Claressa and her dad remember when she was 11 and they first talked about boxing. He told her it was too bad he didn't have any sons to train.


CLARESSA SHIELDS: So I was like, OK, maybe you can kind of, like, live your dream through me a little bit.

CLARENCE SHIELDS: And about a week later, you know, you asked me, could you box? And my answer was, hell no.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Do you remember the exact words that you said? You said boxing is a man's sport. That made me so - it made me so mad.

CLARENCE SHIELDS: And you should have took it that way. That was a chauvinist statement, that a girl can't do it. So, you know, you was right.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: And I've been at it ever since. I'm still proving people wrong.

CLARENCE SHIELDS: Truth be known. I just think, little mama, you are awesome.

JOHNSON: Proving people wrong - it's one of Claressa's biggest motivations. Right now, her record is 74-1. She hasn't lost in four years. Her goal is to be unstoppable, undeniable because that's what will make people respect and pay attention to women's boxing and her.

To focus on the Summer Games in Rio, last year Claressa moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. She's gotten away from the chaos and stress of life in Flint. She's seen a bigger world, and that's what she wants for her mom and younger brother and sister.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: Well, after this Olympics, I want to move my family to Florida or to a better place, you know, where they can be safer and where they can make a living for themselves. I want my family to see the things that I've seen, and I want to see how they feel about it.

JOHNSON: This time around, it's about more than a gold medal. Claressa wants to follow in the footsteps of another young black Olympic boxer who redefined beauty and power both in and out of the ring. And, like Muhammad Ali, Claressa's pretty confident.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: In Rio, the way that I see what's going to happen is everybody's going to be talking about that girl Claressa Shields can fight.

JOHNSON: You're pretty sure you're going to win?

CLARESSA SHIELDS: I know for a fact I'm going to win the Olympics again. I just - I know already. I just - I'm just telling you what's going to happen. I'm going to win, period.

JOHNSON: On August 17, Claressa will be back in the ring to defend her Olympic gold medal. For NPR, I'm Sue Jaye Johnson.

SIEGEL: Sue Jaye Johnson is the producer of "T-Rex," a film about Claressa which airs on PBS's Independent Lens next week. You can hear Claressa's original audio diary on Radio Diaries' podcast.

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