FLINT, Mich. — The ferociousness that won Claressa Shields an Olympic gold medal melted away as she climbed on the podium to claim it.
She giggled and grinned as she caressed it, the prettiest thing the 17-year-old boxer ever had. She shimmied and bounced. She belted out the national anthem with gusto. Finally, unable to contain herself any longer, she held the medal high in the air, threw her head back and laughed.
“This gold medal,” Shields said, “will make my life a lot better.”
Truth is, she can thank herself for that.
“It took a lot for her to get to where she is, because she so easily could have gone in a different direction,” said Mickey Rouse, who along with husband Jason Crutchfield, Shields' coach, has taken Shields in.
Unwilling to accept a life of poverty, crime or worse, Shields found her family, her passion and her way out through a small, dark basement gym.
“If you want something,” she said, “you've got to get it yourself.”
Now she is an Olympic champion, the only U.S. boxer — male or female — to leave London with a gold medal, with more possibly in store four years from now in Rio de Janeiro.
Her first fight since London is Thursday night at the National PAL Championships in Toledo, Ohio.
Shields is a fearsome presence in the ring. Her scowl and angry stare are the first signs of the trouble that awaits her opponents, and she removes any doubt with a furious flurry of punches. Her record is 29-1 — though she disputes that one loss — and she made easy work of the world's best fighters in her middleweight class at the London Olympics, capped by a 19-12 victory over Russia's Nadezda Torlopova, a former world champion at a higher weight class.
Outside the ring, however, she's no different than most 17-year-old girls. She spends hours texting and surfing the Internet on her computer, so much so that Crutchfield occasionally has to take her phone away. Her idea of celebrating when she got back from London was meeting friends at the mall, roller skating and having water balloon fights. No matter how hard she tries to keep it clean, her room is usually a mess.
She is meticulous about her appearance, often trying on three or four outfits before picking one. She's as at home in ballet flats as boxing shoes, and recently traded her braids for long, loose curls. She bites her nails — “I think it's a habit” — and plays with her hair when she talks, and she can't resist a quick glance to check herself out when she passes a mirror.
“Very typical kid,” Crutchfield said. “Verrrrry typical.”
Yet she just as easily could have been one of the many children who slip through the cracks in Flint.
Once the proud home of Buick, Flint has never recovered from the body blow it took when the auto industry collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The 2010 U.S. Census found nearly 37 percent of Flint residents living below the poverty level, more than double the national rate; the city had a median household income of just $27,199. The unemployment rate in August was 9.5 percent, more than a point above the national average, according to preliminary figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The East Side, where Shields spent most of her childhood and still trains, has been hit particularly hard. Miles of barren concrete and toxic contaminants are all that's left of Buick City, the vast assembly complex that employed almost 30,000 people at its height and dominated the landscape. Large portions of the surrounding neighborhoods are little more than rubble, blocks filled with burned-out or dilapidated houses. Liquor stores are plentiful, grocery stores not so much, and what few businesses there are barricade themselves behind thick, black bars on the doors and windows.
Drugs and gangs have flourished, and the city was the country's most dangerous for a second straight year in 2011, with 2,337 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, according to preliminary statistics from the FBI. With more than 50 murders already this year, the city is on pace to break its record of 66, set in 2010.
Shields knows the sad circumstances all too well.
Her older brother is in jail. She lost a friend to gun violence over the summer, and a man was shot and killed outside her training gym last month, less than an hour after she left. She didn't get to know her father, Clarence Shields, until she was 9 because he had spent the previous seven years in prison for breaking and entering, and his presence in her life remains sporadic. Her mother, Marcella Adams, does not stay in one place for long — there are nearly two dozen addresses listed for her — and the frequent moves meant Shields was always looking for a place to call home. There wasn't much money, either, and Shields said she often went hungry.
“It showed at the gym. I wouldn't have enough energy,” she said. “I performed bad and I'd get super tired. I wouldn't be able to recover. I was in great shape, but you could just tell I wasn't eating.”
While her younger siblings, Brianna Shields and Dusable Lewis, leaned on her, Shields learned early on that the only person she could rely on was herself. Even if that meant walking alone in the cold and dark so she could be at the gym by 6 a.m. to get a ride to a tournament.
“I didn't want to have to depend on nobody,” she said. “So I would get up and walk.”
Shields gravitated to boxing because of her father, whose own career as a fighter was derailed by his troubles with the law. He would tell her about Muhammad Ali and how his daughter, Laila, followed in his footsteps.
Shields decided she would do the same.
“Normally when kids have personal issues, they respond negatively,” said Cheryl Adkins, principal at Northwestern High School, where Shields is a senior. “Claressa decided this was going to be her road and she stuck to it.”
Shields was 11 when her father signed the permission slip for the boxing program at Flint's renowned Berston Field House. Crutchfield told her to join the other kids in front of the mirrored wall in the cramped basement gym to practice technique, then handed her off to one of the other coaches.
He didn't bother learning her name. He doubted she'd last long enough.
Two weeks in, however, Crutchfield noticed that Shields was catching on faster than the boys. And while she didn't say much, there was a fierce intensity to her.
“I saw how good she was doing and how fast she was advancing and then that's when I grabbed her,” Crutchfield said. “I said, ‘What's your name again?' She said, ‘Claressa.’ I said, ‘Nah, from now on your name is Ress.’”
Crutchfield took Shields under his wing, teaching her the same punches, footwork and strategies that had won him four Golden Gloves titles in Michigan in the 1980s. She was a natural, and when women's boxing was added to the Olympic program in 2009, Crutchfield told Shields she could win the gold medal.
She was 14, not even old enough to qualify for the U.S. championships.
“I ain't never seen a woman who boxes like me. Even the girls who won gold medals,” Shields said, proudly. “I think if I was another girl and I had to fight myself, I'd be biting my fingernails.”
There is a brutal elegance to Shields' fighting style. Her fists fly with a smoothness, and she delivers her punches with a rhythmic POP! POP! POP! But the blows are punishing and come with unrelenting force, a power fueled partly by rage.
Shields talks matter-of-factly about her family and upbringing and the challenges they presented. She has made peace with all parts of her story, recognizing that while others may have provided the material, it is up to her to decide how it is written.
“You really can't do nothing about stuff you can't control,” she said. “You can't control other people.”
But home now is with Crutchfield and Rouse. Shields has her own room there, and is expected to do chores. Shields hasn't had time to get her driver's license, so Crutchfield and Rouse get her to school, the gym and anywhere else she needs to go, using the black van with “Claressa Shields 2012 female Olympic gold medalist” emblazoned in — what else? — gold on the sides that a local dealer provided in an endorsement deal. (There's a black Camaro with gold detailing waiting when Shields does get that license.)
As for her future, Crutchfield and Rouse insist not only that Shields go to college, but that she go to the University of Michigan-Flint or another local school for her first year.
“I told her she's got to stay here the first year, get adapted so she can get used to it, get used to that life,” Crutchfield said. “If she wants to go somewhere else after that, she can go.”
Whenever Shields leaves the house, she never fails to hug Rouse. When she's traveling, she calls every day so Rouse won't worry.
“Everybody needs that type of security system, and Jason is that security for her,” said Adkins, who also was principal at Shields' middle school. “When she's doubting herself, he reminds her she can do it.”
Added Rouse, “Jason always says, 'Our children, they need confidence. They need for us to give them the ability to be exactly whatever they can be.' He's right. He built her up. When it came time to stand on her two feet, she did it.”
Shields is on track to graduate next spring — despite all her travels, she's an honors student who maintains a B or better average — and wants to be a photojournalist. She used to think she wanted to be a lawyer, maybe a nurse, but changed her mind after working with Sue Jaye Johnson, who included Shields in her multimedia project on female boxers before the London Olympics.
Shields has a small camera and favors “natural” pictures: photos of people training or in their everyday life. She keeps a journal, and also has started a video diary.
“I always liked pictures, and I was already interested in writing,” she said. “Seeing how (Johnson) works and how she interviews and all the pictures she took, I really like doing stuff like that.”
With little, if any, market for women's professional boxing right now, Shields plans to stay amateur for at least the next two years. She isn't ruling out the Rio Olympics in 2016, though that could depend on what kind of financial support she gets from USA Boxing and the U.S. Olympic Committee. Shields' gold medal came with a $25,000 bonus from the USOC, and she gets a monthly stipend from USA Boxing. But flyweight bronze medalist Marlen Esparza had pre-games deals with Coca-Cola and CoverGirl, and endorsements like that matter for a girl like Shields, who had to start from scratch.
“Claressa seems to be a smart girl and she has a good attitude. Even though, she is young and has a lot to learn, I think she will find her way,” Laila Ali said in an email. “She called and asked me for business advice and I told her that she should surround herself with the right team of people that can make the most of her Olympic success. The hype does not last long unless you strategically take advantage of it.”
USA Boxing is already working with Crutchfield on lining up new sponsors, and executive director Anthony Bartkowski said he thinks there will be a market for the engaging teenager.
“She's a true superstar for the sport of women's boxing. And all of boxing in the United States,” Bartkowski said. “She's young, she's got a great mind, she's ambitious and she wants to do what's good for boxing but also women's professional sports. ... Now we have to fast-track her.”
But it won't go to her head, Shields insists.
She is fiercely proud of her flawed city, and is well aware she's become a beacon of hope for its beleaguered residents. Watch parties during the Olympics at her high school's auditorium and a restaurant downtown were packed. Her appearances since London have been equally popular, and everyone in Flint is on a first-name basis with her, even if they don't really know her.
“She's been remarkable in being able to shoulder this,” said Bryant Nolden, a city councilman whose ward includes Berston. “She's giving the city of Flint and a lot of youth here hope, showing you can achieve your dreams if you put in hard work and dedication.”
Because that, after all, was her real prize.
“Everybody thinks that it's about money and gold. But no, it's not that,” Shields said. “It's the fact I know I put in all these years of working and I had a goal set and I accomplished my goal. That's what makes me happy.”