Hometown: Flint, MI
During the May middleweight quarterfinals of the Women's World Boxing Championships in Kazakhstan, Shields faced local favorite Violleta Knyazeva, who had the support of a raucous crowd. "Fans had drums and were yelling, Kaza, Kaza!" Shields recalls. "You couldn't hear anything else."
That is, until Shields silenced them with a unanimous decision (3-0) over Knyazeva. "I embrace the crowd when everyone is against me. When they yelled, 'Kaza,' I was like, Oh, really? Boop, boop, boop," Shields says, adding sound effects for her jabs. "I thought, No matter how loud you cheer for her, this girl is going to get beat."
When Shields, a two-time women's elite world champ, took down Nouchka Fontijn of the Netherlands in the final, the same fans who rooted against the American began chanting, U-S-A! "I love beating the odds and winning," she says.
Shields, who in 2012 became the first U.S. female boxer to win Olympic gold, has long triumphed in the face of adversity. And she has turned to her sport to find an escape from life's hardships. Her father was in prison when she was two to nine years old; her mother struggled with alcohol and drug abuse. More recently, Shields's family has been affected by the water contamination crisis in Flint. For Shields, boxing is a happy distraction. "When the ref raises my hand and declares me the winner, that's when all my worries disappear," she says.
Her father signed her up for her first boxing lesson when she was 11. Before Shields blossomed into a dominant fighter (74-1), she remembers being quiet but also a crybaby. With success has come maturity — and Shields is certainly no longer reserved. "I'm going to be a household name after Rio," she boasts. She balances her confidence with a message of resilience, though. "It doesn't matter where you come from or what your upbringing is like. You can rise above all of that," she says.
Her will to win gold again is not just about another accolade. Shields wants to elevate women's boxing. "I like men's boxing, but I feel like I box better than a lot of men," Shields says. No shade — just straight talk from a fighter with a bigger vision. "I want to see equal pay and our fights on television," she says. "Winning another gold medal can help us go in that direction."
Photo: Harry How/Getty Images