Off to college, Olympic boxing champ defies odds
FLINT, Mich. (AP) -- At an ice-breaker during their orientation last month, the incoming freshmen at Olivet College were asked to tell their classmates two truths and a lie about themselves.
When it was Claressa Shields' turn, some of the students decided "winning gold at the London Olympics'' certainly was the lie.
No, others said, the fib was that Shields is a boxer.
The truth? Hardly anyone would believe it. And winning an Olympic gold medal as a 17-year-old boxer is only the half of it.
"She has come so far from ... that little girl who didn't have a coat but still got up in wintertime and went to school. Who didn't have anything to eat and still made her way,'' said Mickey Rouse, who has become a mother figure to Shields and whose husband, Jason Crutchfield, coaches the Olympic champion. "That girl, who can forget her? That's remarkable.''
A year after winning the Olympic middleweight title in London - the only gold by a U.S. boxer, male or female - Shields is defying expectations once again. Sidesteppng the cycle of poverty and crime that dragged down family members and resisting the temptations of newfound fame, Shields has done more than find an escape from her tough circumstances.
She's given herself options.
The first of her siblings to graduate from high school, she begins classes later this month at Olivet. She was awarded a full scholarship, and plans to study broadcast journalism and business at the small, private liberal arts school about 90 miles southwest of Flint.
"I think college is going to be fun,'' she said. "I wasn't too excited about college at first because I really didn't think that I wanted to go. The only thing I wanted to do is box. But in the end, as you get older, you learn things. You've got to have a Plan B and a Plan C.''
She learned that the hard way after London.
Unlike Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas, Shields' gold medal didn't come with fame and fortune. Oh, sure, she made the rounds of dignitaries in Michigan, appeared on "The Colbert Report,'' walked the red carpet at "The BET Honors'' in February and was a question on "Jeopardy.'' But Fortune 500 companies didn't come calling with endorsement deals. She wasn't asked to be a presenter on any of the major award shows, like Douglas and her Fierce Five teammates.
She wasn't even nominated for an ESPY.
"It's not hate toward Gabby Douglas. She did a great job. She went there and represented America,'' Shields said. "But I did the same thing.''
Shields got a $25,000 bonus from the U.S. Olympic Committee, just as Phelps, Douglas and every other U.S. athlete who won a gold medal in London did. But aside from the occasional speaking engagement, most of her income now comes from her $2,000-per-month training stipend.
Shields blames the lack of attention on the fact that women's boxing isn't as popular in the United States as gymnastics or swimming. But Olympic champions need more than a gold medal to cash in, and her new agent and promoter Rick Mirigian insists it's all a matter of marketing the engaging Shields and her remarkable story.
He's already been in talks with several big companies, including Wonderful Pistachios, Beats by Dre and the Jordan Brand, and Mirigian said IMG was recently in Flint to film a documentary on Shields.
"We're really creating the foundation for her to have her chance at mainstream America,'' Mirigian said. "(The deals) won't be millions of dollars, but they'll absolutely be significant. Significant from an exposure standpoint and significant monetarily.
"Claressa is an untapped market for a lot of companies,'' Mirigian added. "She's an amazing story. Period. Just an amazing story.''
Indeed, long before she was old enough to understand long-range plans or preparing for her future, Shields showed flashes of a resilience that is as powerful and unwavering as the blows she delivers with her fists.
She grew up on Flint's gritty East Side, which took the loss of the automotive industry harder than any other in "Vehicle City.''
Buick City, the vast assembly complex that employed almost 30,000 people in its heyday and dominated the landscape, is little more than miles of barren concrete now. The neighborhoods surrounding it are pock-marked by abandoned homes, and those that are occupied look tired and rundown. The few businesses that have braved the fallout barricade themselves behind thick, black bars on windows and doors.
With her father in prison for a good portion of her childhood for breaking and entering and her mother bouncing from one address to another (she had nearly two dozen addresses last fall and has moved since then), Shields realized early on that she could only reply on herself. She gravitated toward boxing, and the local youth program Crutchfield runs became her sanctuary.
Boxing may be the most brutal of sports, but it gave Shields a precious gift: A window to a world beyond Flint.
A world Crutchfield desperately hopes she'll continue to explore.
Beginning with rides to and from practice and school, Crutchfield and Rouse welcomed Shields into their home and their hearts. Shields calls Rouse "Mama Mickey.'' They consider her one of their own.
But Shields and Crutchfield have been at odds almost since they returned from London, with most of their disagreements centering on Shields' boyfriend. Like most teenage girls with their first serious beau, Shields spends most of her free time with him, and Crutchfield worries that he's a distraction.
"I just think it's hard for any father to accept when his daughter is getting older and she's starting to talk to boys,'' Shields said.
The tension got so bad that Shields recently moved out of their house, where she's lived the last two years. Though she still visits often and occasionally spends the night, she is living again with her mother and younger sister and brother. Meantime, Crutchfield frets that there's little oversight, that she'll mistake young love for the real thing, that she'll sacrifice something good and true.
"You never want to get older and say, `What was I thinking? What was I doing?''' Crutchfield said. "I hope she learns early enough, I really do. She's still my little girl (and) I just want her to do the right thing. I want the best for her.''
But Shields insists she's no different than any other girl her age, testing out her independence and trying adulthood on for size. And while Crutchfield may not realize it, the lessons he and Rouse taught her have left their mark.
When her younger brother, Dusable Lewis, mentions getting into an argument with a friend's mother, Shields launches into a lecture, telling him he needs to treat adults with respect or he'll never get any in return. It's the same talk Crutchfield has been having with her for years. The need for multiple backup plans comes from Rouse, right down to the way Shields words it.
"It's OK to go off sometime and have a little fun. And I've kind of been doing that. (But) I know I'm a role model, so I don't do anything that (people) wouldn't want to have their kids doing,'' Shields said, pointing out that she doesn't smoke, drink or do anything "crazy.''
"It's easy to get off track, but I don't want to get off track,'' she said. "I'll be OK.''
To ensure that, Rouse encouraged Shields to cut back on her course load in her first semester at Olivet. When Shields initially put her schedule together, she was taking 16 credits, including a math class.
"She killed herself. I told her, `Hell no. No. No,''' Rouse said. "She doesn't know life without someone in her ear all the time. If she starts all at once, she won't survive. ... I know her. If Ressa gets frustrated, Ressa shuts down and walks away.''
Shields put off the math class until second semester, and now is taking broadcast journalism, English and physical education, along with a class designed to help students adjust to college. She has a tutor lined up, and Rouse made several contacts at the school who will help keep an eye on Shields.
"I actually think she'll do well,'' Rouse said. "She's a smart girl. She just gets too many things going on that takes her mind away, her focus. But at least here, she's not overwhelmed.''
Shields is looking forward to the new challenge, as well as the opportunity to meet new people and try new things. She's toying with taking up volleyball again, a sport she played in grade school but had to give up as her boxing career took hold.
She's picked out her dorm - the co-ed one, not the all-girls dorm Rouse suggested - but doesn't have a roommate yet. She and Rouse are compiling lists of what she needs to bring, with her pink Betty Boop comforter at the top.
Her gold medal, too.
"Of course!'' Shields said, laughing. "I'm not going to let nobody else watch it. Nobody else is going to be caring about my gold medal like I am.''
Part of what attracted Shields to Olivet is that the school has a small boxing ring and bags, so she can continue to train. School officials have told Crutchfield he's welcome any time he wants to work with her, and Shields also plans to buy a car and keep it on campus to make it easier to get back and forth.
What she's training for, however, isn't nearly so settled.
Shields wants to box at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro - "Being able to fight in front of that large crowd, being able to wear USA, being able to fight on television so my family and friends are able to watch me, that's really what makes me want to go back. And then just to win again'' - and going for a second gold would likely help her marketability. She would be a heavy favorite to repeat as Olympic champion, something no American boxer has ever done.
"She's so far ahead of all the rest of these women, it's crazy,'' Crutchfield said.
But she's also considering turning professional simply so she can fight, something she hasn't done much of since London.
Under international rules, the minimum age for fighters in the elite division is 19. USA Boxing used to allow fighters under 19 to compete at the senior national championships, as well as other amateur tournaments, while hosting an Under-19 national championship. Beginning this year, however, USA Boxing created a youth division specifically for 18 and 19 year olds.
That means Shields, who won't be 19 until next March 17, must fight in the youth division at amateur tournaments. And few want to get in the ring with a fighter who has a 33-1 record, including 15 TKOs.
"I've missed out on probably three big tournaments,'' she said. "I don't even understand why they changed the rules.''
Despite waning interest in the sport in the United States, Mirigian said Shields would have opportunities if she turned pro.
But that would likely be a short-term solution to a long-term dilemma, and Shields, Crutchfield and Mirigian are working with USA Boxing to find ways to make it worth her while to stay amateur through Rio.
"I don't know if I expected too much or too less, but whatever I expected, I didn't get,'' Shields said. "I'm not upset about it because when it comes that time for me to get all that media and all that stuff, it'll come. For right now, I'm just going to let God handle that stuff. I'll just wait.
"Good things,'' she said, "come to those who wait.''
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