LONDON -- In the bowels of the F.W.C. Berston Fieldhouse in Flint, Mich., with old equipment when it was there and makeshift gear when it was not, Claressa Shields worked. There was no promised payoff, no hint that boxing would elevate her to a better life. Yet since age 11 she was there, nearly every day, battering heavy bags until they split, sparring with boys because there were no girls who could go rounds with her.
She did it because she loved it, not because she expected much from it. She got something at ExCeL Centre on Thursday though: A gold medal. With a thorough, 19-12 whipping of Russia's Nadezda Torlopova, the 17-year old Shields claimed the only gold medal for the U.S. boxing team while becoming the second-youngest boxer ever to win gold.
Addressing a throng of reporters in the media zone, a teenager's enthusiasm was replaced by subdued bewilderment. "I don't even know that this is real right now," Shields said. "I'm surprised I didn't cry. This is something I wanted for a long time."
The medal ceremony was historic -- anything involving women's boxing is, after all -- but the fight was anticlimactic. Shields was a heavy favorite against Torlopova, a 33-year old veteran whom Shields and her personal trainer, Jason Crutchfield, characterized before the fight as simply "slow." After an even first round, Shields took over, raining combinations on Torlopova when she wanted to rumble, snapping her head back with crisp jabs when she didn't. She won the second round 7-4, the third 5-3, and by then it was over. The final two minutes were less a contest than a coronation.
"I didn't want to underestimate her," Shields said. "But I already knew I was faster than her. I knew she was going to step up. She stepped up a little in the first round. Then I think she felt she was stronger than me and was just going to walk in. So when I showed her I had a little bit of power, she stepped off."
Said Torlopova, "It was speed against experience. Speed was better."
With gold around her neck, Shields enters an uncertain future. At 17, Shields is a superstar-in-waiting. She is Michael Phelps before Phelps became Michael Phelps, a teenage sensation who in a sport where 30-somethings are finding success can have a realistic chance at winning three or four gold medals -- if she stays an amateur.
"I don't know," Shields said about an Olympic return. "I really can't say no, but I can't say yes. I like traveling for free. I like going to training camp. I really do love boxing. I want to be the best. If I can be two-time gold medalist, me and my coach have to talk about it."
If Shields were a man, turning pro would be a no-brainer. Boxing promoters wage war for the right to sign Olympic medalists, and Shields's gold would guarantee her a seven-figure payday.
But the landscape in women's boxing is far less certain. Women's professional boxing has never established a foothold in the U.S., its success limited to the occasional wunderkind (Christy Martin), flashy name (Laila Ali) or interesting story (heavyweight boxer/school teacher Sonya Lamonakis). Networks have, for the most part, not been interested. "The talent in women's boxing is improving, but it's happening at a time when boxing as a whole is on the decline," promoter and former HBO executive Lou DiBella told SI recently. "Because there is not any money to be made in it, you just are't going to see many women on shows."
In fact, remaining an amateur could be the most lucrative path. No, Shields is not Phelps. But she is an intelligent, well-spoken high school senior with the charisma of Floyd Mayweather and the pop of Manny Pacquiao. If -- and this is a big if -- endorsers line up for her, she will be in Rio in 2016.
"That's what we are going to have to find out," Crutchfield said. "I want her to make some money. We are going to have to sit down and figure some things out."
USA Boxing hopes she stays, because Shields is the new face of the program. She emerged from the rubble of the men's historic collapse, turning doubters of women's boxing into believers in the process. "No one is going to watch the Olympics and say women can't box," Shields said. "They saw me get down."
Into the record books, into the history books goes Claressa Shields. From the bowels of Berston to the Olympic podium, a girl with no expectations has achieved unprecedented success.