'Radio Diaries'
2:47 pm
Mon February 27, 2012

Straight Out Of Flint: Girl Boxer Aims For Olympics

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 8:00 am

Sixteen-year-old Claressa Shields has a dream. She's in London, at the Olympic finals for women's boxing, when the announcer calls out, "The first woman Olympian at 165 pounds — Claressa Shields!"

Claressa, a high school student and middleweight boxer from Flint, Mich., is the youngest fighter competing for a place on the U.S. Olympic women's boxing team.

Boxing has been an Olympic sport since the ancient Greeks, but this year, for the first time in history, female boxers will step into the ring to compete at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Earlier this month, Claressa joined 23 of the country's best amateur female boxers at the Olympic team trials in Spokane, Wash., to compete for three spots on the inaugural team.

Claressa is undefeated — she has a 19-0 record — but in Spokane, at the biggest matches of her life, she faced women almost a decade older and much more experienced. But Claressa Shields has beaten the odds before.

'Proving People Wrong'

Claressa attributes her start in boxing to her father, Clarence Shields, an amateur underground boxer who was nicknamed "Cannonball" because of his fast, hard punches. Clarence went to prison when Claressa was 2 and didn't come out until she was 9, but Claressa clearly remembers the stories her father shared from his fighting days.

When Claressa first asked Clarence if she could box, he told her that boxing was a man's sport. "That made me so mad," Claressa recalls. But she wouldn't give up on the idea, and when she was 11 years old, her father finally brought her to the gym.

"I'm going to be honest, my first thought was you would get beat up and quit," her father tells her. But Claressa proved him wrong.

"I'm still proving people wrong," she says.

'Once-In-A-Lifetime Thing'

For Claressa, the gym is a beautiful place. As soon as she walks through the door, she says the stress of the outside world melts away. "If they would let me live there, I would."

Stepping inside the ring, meanwhile, is like entering a different dimension. "It's like everything outside the ring's black," she says. "Can't nobody else get in there and help you. Your coach, he can't get in the ring and fight with you. You don't have your dad, your mom. When you get in the ring, you don't have anybody but yourself."

Claressa's coach, Jason Crutchfield, says he first noticed her determination and aggressive, fast punches a week after she came to his gym. "A coach always wants a champion; that's why we coach," Crutchfield says. "I just never thought it was going to be a girl."

Claressa and Crutchfield have an almost father-daughter relationship. Sure, Claressa is a fierce competitor, confident and determined; but she's also a teenager. When a phone call from an admiring boy interrupts practice, Crutchfield is quick to remind her to stay focused. "You got all your life for boys," he says. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing right here."

It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing for Claressa and for Flint, a town infamous for poverty, staggering unemployment and violent crime. Crutchfield says he sees Claressa's success as a chance for Flint to turn that reputation around and boost morale. "This will show them that, through all that, something good came out of Flint: Claressa Shields."

On The Road To London

Claressa Shields did show them. At the Spokane Olympic trials, the "16-Year-Old Sensation" fought a week of tournaments in which she bested each of her opponents. In the Feb. 18 finals, she faced two-time national champion Tika Hemingway. At stake was a spot on the first-ever U.S. Olympic women's boxing team. After four punishing rounds, Claressa defeated Hemingway by a score of 23 to 18.

Claressa will move on to the Women's World Boxing Championship in China, where the best female boxers in the world will fight for the top eight spots — and a chance to make history at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Produced by Joe Richman, Sue Jaye Johnson and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries and edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. This story is a collaboration with WNYC's Women Box project.

See more of Sue Jaye Johnson's work on female boxers in The New York Times Magazine.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

In this part of the program, we're going ringside. Boxing has been an Olympic sport since the time of the ancient Greeks, but only men have taken part. This year, that changes.

SIEGEL: For the first time, women will step into the ring at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Earlier this month, two dozen of the country's best amateur women boxers competed for three spots on the U.S. team. One of the contenders was 16-year-old Claressa Shields, a junior at Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan.

CORNISH: For the past few months, Sue Jaye Johnson and Joe Richmond of Radio Dairies have been following Claressa as she prepared for the Olympic trials. They also gave her a tape recorder to keep an audio diary of her life. This is her story.

CLARESSA SHIELDS: All right. Well, we're going to start with my name is Claressa Shields. I'm 16. I've been boxing since I was 11. My record is 19 and 0. Yeah, undefeated.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce...

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.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Claressa Shields.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SHIELDS: And, in my dream, I was looking around and I would think to myself like, how did I get here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOP OF THE WORLD")

NICKI MINAJ: (Singing) I remember standing in the mirror searching for a winner...

SHIELDS: Hello. Testing. Testing. Good morning, this is Claressa again. That's my alarm.

(Singing) Whoa-ho, chasing dreams got me all over the world...

When I'm sleeping on the couch at my aunt's house - I just moved in probably about a month and a half ago. She has three kids and me and my little brother live with her. So, it's like she's got five kids, really. We all live in the same house.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Come here.

SHIELDS: Hold on. My second little cousin crying.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Here, OK. Shhh. Tanasia(ph). Where's Tanasia at?

SHIELDS: Why do I live with my aunt? Well, my mom, you know, she has her own problems. You know, more bad days than good days. It just wasn't helping with my boxing, so I just - I had to move out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SHIELDS: Crack my neck. Wash my face real fast and head out. Peanut. Later.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SHIELDS: Sound of footsteps. It's snowing. Out here look all pretty. Like white Christmas trees. Today is 30 days before the Olympic trials.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHIELDS: Wow. (Singing) Today is a new day and there is no sunshine.

I think there's a time in everybody's life where no matter if you've got good parents or bad parents, it's your time to decide if you want to go left, or if you want to go right. Before boxing, my goal was to have 10 kids before I was 26. I wanted to have a big old family, a lot of kids. I thought I would have been a good mom, too. But, no, I ain't thinking about that now though.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHIELDS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

CLARENCE SHIELDS: What's up, champ?

SHIELDS: We're at my dad's house and we're about to watch the DVD of him boxing.

SHIELDS: I think I've got about eight now on DVD.

SHIELDS: And he's going to talk trash.

SHIELDS: Watch how he's going to come now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHIELDS: Oh. OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SHIELDS: You see, with no jab, no action. Watch how he's going to come now.

SHIELDS: You see how she was wasting punches?

SHIELDS: Yeah, she's wasting energy.

SHIELDS: For those who didn't know, my dad was a boxer. They say he was real good. They used to call him Cannonball.

SHIELDS: I had a career as a underground fighter. We go from state to state, here and there, fighting guys. I fought in barns, closed army bunkers. You understand what I'm saying? You know, we was dirty fighters, you know. You fought until one of y'all couldn't stand no more. You know, and...

SHIELDS: This is illegal?

SHIELDS: It's totally illegal. You know, I, one time, could have turned pro, I think. But I started winding up in and out of prison. And when I came home from prison that was the first time I seen her since she was two.

SHIELDS: Yeah, you had braids in your hair. That's what I remember.

SHIELDS: Yes.

SHIELDS: My dad, he went to prison when I was two and got out when I was nine. You remember the first conversation we ever had about boxing?

SHIELDS: Yeah. One day, we was riding in my van, I think it was. And we was kicking it.

SHIELDS: Mm-hmm.

SHIELDS: I told a story about the fact that I used to fight, and that none of my children or no one else in my family had picked up the torch and became a boxer.

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

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

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.

SHIELDS: And you should have took it that way. That was a chauvinist statement...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHIELDS: ...that a girl cat do it. So, you know, you was right.

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

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

(SOUNDBITE OF PUNCHING BAG)

SHIELDS: Hello, this is Claressa again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Come on. Come.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUNCHING BAG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There you go.

SHIELDS: I'm at Berston Field House right now. And it is 17 days before the Olympic trials.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Get ready, Ress. Hurry up.

SHIELDS: OK, hold on. Coach?

JASON CRUTCHFIELD: Yeah?

SHIELDS: Can you explain to me what's going on right now? Mr. Jason Crutchfield - Coach Crutchfield.

CRUTCHFIELD: You're going to spar with them two guys right there. Come on, y'all. Get ready. Ready.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM)

CRUTCHFIELD: Box.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPARRING)

CRUTCHFIELD: Good shot. Let him go. Right there, Ress. There you go, right there.

SHIELDS: To me, the gym is a beautiful place. You know, as soon as I walk in there it was like all stress just - it just leaves you. If they would let me live there, I would. I mean, we got a bathroom upstairs for showers. I bring my clothes, pillow, a nice size cover, probably make me a pallet in the ring. Cut the light off and just go to sleep.

CRUTCHFIELD: That's a good shot there. Come on, Ress. Let's go. Stay into it. Sloppy. Sloppy. Don't get sloppy. Keep yourself together. Come on. There you go.

Well, I could remember her dad brought her down to the gym. She was 11 years old - 11. And so, he told me, he asked me, say: Hey, my daughter wants to box. A week after that, I noticed how she was punching aggressively, fast, and her fire, her hunger. Man, a coach always wants a champion. That's why we coach. We want to help the kids and stuff like that. But the first thing is to have a champion. Now, look, I think I got one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CRUTCHFIELD: I just never thought it was going to be a girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM)

CRUTCHFIELD: All right. Come here, Ress. You got to do 15 minutes of ice, 15 minutes of heat. You got me?

SHIELDS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGTONE)

SHIELDS: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Hey, Ress. Ress - whatever...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CRUTCHFIELD: Hey, Ress. Turn that phone off.

SHIELDS: I'm (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: All right.

SHIELDS: All right.

CRUTCHFIELD: Who is this boy?

SHIELDS: Ah.

CRUTCHFIELD: What did you - I mean...

SHIELDS: Ain't no big deal. Dang.

CRUTCHFIELD: So, you'd rather talk to the boy than be at the Olympic trials?

SHIELDS: Come on now. What kind of question is that?

CRUTCHFIELD: You know how close this thing is?

SHIELDS: Mm-hmm.

CRUTCHFIELD: Real close. You don't need anything that's going to take your attention somewhere else. Nothing.

SHIELDS: Whatever. I like boys - can't help it.

CRUTCHFIELD: That's cool, but just keep it platonic.

SHIELDS: What that mean?

CRUTCHFIELD: Nothing but a friendship. If you like him, drop him.

SHIELDS: Me - ooh. Nothing.

CRUTCHFIELD: Claressa, you're up against a lot. When we go to these Olympic trials, you're going to be up against grown women that are stronger than you. They ain't got to go to school. They ain't got homework. All they got to do is box. These people are hungry.

SHIELDS: Mm-hmm. It makes sense.

CRUTCHFIELD: You're gifted. You're real good. But you're not ready yet. We're almost there. We're not there yet.

SHIELDS: Well, I'm strong minded. I'm not going to let nobody lead me off in the wrong direction.

CRUTCHFIELD: Claressa, look at me. Just stay focused. You got all your life for boys. This is a once in a lifetime thing right here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Singing) Glory. Glory. Hallelujah...

SHIELDS: Right now, we're at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. I came to talk to them about supporting me in Spokane, Washington for the women Olympic trials. And every little bit helps.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: This young lady here got an opportunity to go to the Olympics. Ain't you undefeated?

SHIELDS: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: She's undefeated.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SHIELDS: Hi. I would like to introduce myself. I'm a female boxer at Berston Field House. I've been boxing since I was 11 years old. I've been training very hard, and I do believe in God. I'm just asking that, if you want to give anything, it all helps. That's all.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Congratulations.

SHIELDS: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: There's so many young girls out there. They fight, but they're not fighting for the right reasons. You know what I'm saying? We really do need people like you in this city.

SHIELDS: Yes, sir.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEN SINGING)

CRUTCHFIELD: If she won this, that would really do a lot for our city, Flint, the murder capital, the highest unemployment rate. Everybody looking at Flint like Flint is just a ghost town, like we don't even exist, you know. If we can pull that off, oh, my God. This will show them that, through all that, something good came out of Flint. Claressa Shields. And the things about it is, I think we going to do it. I feel like it was meant for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEN SINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Amen. God bless you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGTONE)

SHIELDS: Hello?

SHIELDS: So what's going on with you?

SHIELDS: Doing all right. How you doing?

SHIELDS: Oh, I'm all right. I'm all right.

SHIELDS: My dad was going to come to the Olympic trials in Spokane. Dad, where you at right now?

SHIELDS: Huh?

SHIELDS: Where are you at right now?

SHIELDS: Down at the county. Now, look...

SHIELDS: He called me and he had been arrested. The back taillight of the car was messed up and he got pulled over. And he had - a warrant is out for his arrest. I don't know what he did to get the warrant.

SHIELDS: So, I just wanted to call you and tell you I love you.

SHIELDS: OK.

SHIELDS: And good luck and make sure, of all the things you do, make sure you say your prayer.

SHIELDS: Yeah, all the time.

SHIELDS: OK, baby. Bye-bye.

SHIELDS: Bye. Why (Unintelligible) hang up for?

SHIELDS: I wanted to hear your voice last.

SHIELDS: All right. One, two, three. When I say three, go. Hang up.

OK.

All right. Ready? One, two, three, go. Everything in life that I've ever wanted, I've always got it. I mean, besides money or besides - yeah - besides a lot of stuff. But out of everything I ever wanted, I've always got it. But at the end of the day, I'll just think to myself. I don't know what's going to happen. So, good night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: We find out what happens to teenage boxer Claressa Shields and her Olympic dream in just a moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

SIEGEL: I'm Robert Siegel.

And we continue now with the audio diary of 16-year-old Claressa Shields, vying for a spot on the first ever U.S. Olympic Women's Boxing Team.

Earlier this month at the Olympic trials in Spokane, Claressa beat three nationally ranked boxers to reach the finals. There, she faced two-time national champion, middleweight Tika Hemingway. Our story picks up with Claressa preparing for the big fight.

SHIELDS: Hello. Testing, testing. OK. This is Claressa again, and I'm just getting my mind ready to get warm, jab and pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, jab right hand, poo, poo. It's about to go down.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the U.S. Olympic Team trial for women's boxing.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Good evening, everyone. Good evening, boxing fans. Thanks for joining us on this historic occasion. We are set to begin the action. Championship...

SHIELDS: When I step in the ring, it's like I step into a whole different dimension, like everything outside of ring is black. Can't nobody else get in there and help you. Your coach - he ain't getting in the ring and fight with you. You don't have your dad, mom. When we get in the ring, you don't have nobody but yourself.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Let's get it on. Round number one.

CRUTCHFIELD: This is it. This is it right here. Let's go. Everything there. Go get them. There you go. Beautiful jab. That jab's looking good.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: A sound start for Claressa Shields. Lots of speed on that jab.

CRUTCHFIELD: Come on, Ress. Keep your hands up. Hands up. Come on, baby.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Claressa Shields (unintelligible) the right hand to the body. But Tika Hemingway is, trying to muscle Claressa backward now.

CRUTCHFIELD: Come on, Ress. You're getting pushed, Ress. (Unintelligible), Ress. Ress, do you hear me? Let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Claressa Shields, moving back to the corner, trying to keep her opponent off of her.

CRUTCHFIELD: Go. Come on, Ress. Go. Go.

I'm like, man, I don't want her to lose no fight. But being a fighter is all about coming back. That's when you find out the true character of a person. And if she can come back, then we'll know.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And that's the end of the round.

CRUTCHFIELD: Come on, show me something. Look alive.

SHIELDS: I got it.

CRUTCHFIELD: No. You ain't tired. Don't you ever say you tired.

SHIELDS: I said I got it.

CRUTCHFIELD: Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: So, you heard Claressa Shields' coach telling her to look alive and Claressa answers with, I've got it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Final round, round number four.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

CRUTCHFIELD: Come on, Ress, last round. Everything on the round right now.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Big right hand and a hook from Claressa Shields.

CRUTCHFIELD: There you go. Work it here. Work it here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Now, she's bringing the uppercuts right up the center. Claressa boxes her way off the ropes.

CRUTCHFIELD: Nice. That's how you break it off.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Claressa Shields very comfortable now. She's going heavy leather.

CRUTCHFIELD: Oh, there you go. Oh, there you go.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We're heading into the final seconds. Claressa Shields waiting for Tika to come forward. That's the end of the round.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: What an outstanding bout.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Ladies and gentlemen, I have your winner. With a score of 23 to 18, boxing out of the red corner, Claressa Shields. Claressa Shields is your United States of America team champion.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

CRUTCHFIELD: (Unintelligible). You hear me? Don't (unintelligible) on it. OK. Good.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHIELDS: Wow. My name is Claressa Shields. I always knew I was going to be something. I just didn't know what.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Claressa Shields is now one of three women on the first ever U.S. Olympic Women's Boxing Team. She faces one more hurdle when she fights in the world championships in China in May. If she succeeds there, she will represent the United States at the Olympic Games in London this summer.

SIEGEL: Our story was produced by Joe Richman, Samara Freemark and Sue Jaye Johnson of Radio Diaries with editors Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. It's a collaboration with WNYC's Women Box Project. You can find photos and more about Claressa Shields and many other women boxers at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.