Ann talks with professional boxer Claressa Shields about discovering her talent for boxing at age 12, using the sport to release her anger, and becoming the first woman to win a gold medal in Olympic boxing.
CLARESSA SHIELDS: It was still hard to market a woman fighter. People, they wanted me to speak different and everything. Talk nicer about boxing. I was like, how do you do that?
They even told me in some interviews I had after—don’t say this. Me talking about boxing, how much I love boxing and how much I love hitting people, made me look like a bully. And I was like “But that's like telling Michael Jordan to say he don't like dunking on people. He plays basketball. And boxing? You punch people. I like to punch people!”
ANN FRIEDMAN: Claressa Shields first stepped into a boxing ring when she was 12 years old. And here’s the thing—she was good at it. Really good. It was as if she had discovered the solution to all of her life’s challenges. She’d been boxing for just four years when the Olympics made an historic announcement: they would allow women to compete in boxing for the first time ever. Claressa knew this was her shot at greatness. But when they told her she was too young to compete, it threatened to take away everything she’d worked for.
I’m Ann Friedman, and this is Going Through It: a show about how hard it can be to figure out when to quit and when to keep going.
On this episode, what happens when everyone tells you to wait your turn, but you’re certain that waiting will ruin your life.
FRIEDMAN: When when did you first realize you were good at boxing?
SHIELDS: [laughs] I knew I was good when I was 12, and I had been boxing for two months. I remember the first punch I actually got hit with was probably a right hand or something. It was a right hand, and my eyes got watery, and my face turned red and then I heard Jason [Crutchfield, her coach] say, “Oh you done messed up now!”
SHIELDS: And when he hit me, and my eyes got watery, I remember I just balled up my fists so tight, and I just start swinging. I start swinging and I was fighting my sparring partner. I had him on the ropes. I was beating him down. And I just remember everybody saying, “What are you doing?! What are you doing?!”
I came back to the corner after the round and Jason was like, “How you feel?” I said, “I’m ok.” He said “Calm down. Now. You got your anger out the way now right?” Somehow he must’ve knew I had a quick temper. He told me to calm down. He said, “Have you got your anger out now?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Go out there, use your jab, and work on a combination that we taught you up on the wall.” And I said, “OK.”
I went out there and he was like, “listen for my voice.” And he will yell out the combinations. Two count. Three count, four count, five count. We sparred about four rounds.
After we got out the ring and everybody was just laughing at my sparring partner, and I didn't really know why. And I was just like “we sparred.” And, you know, he hit me sometimes, but I hit him a lot more. So my coach told me to go hit the bag. And when I went to hit the bag I was punching the bag and some dude walked up to me was like, “Man, this little dude can fight!”
And I looked up at him I said, “I'm not no boy!” And he look and he started screaming like, eyes got really big. I don't remember who he was. He just was like, “Oh My GOD!” Y’all this is a girl, this is a girl.” Everybody was like, “No it’s not.” And when they walked over to Timmy, they were looking at him like, “Yo that’s a freaking girl.”
And that’s when I knew. Maybe I’m a girl that know how to fight.
FRIEDMAN: Already at that age were you thinking about like, how do I do this forever?
SHIELDS: I just knew I love boxing. I love boxing. I'mma keep coming to the gym. Out of everything I'm going through, you know dealing with my family. I had been sleeping on the floor. You know, even when I was training I would still go hungry sometimes. Boxing was the only place I got a peace of mind where nothing else mattered in the world but boxing.
FRIEDMAN: And would you be thinking about that, when you weren't actually in the ring or at the gym like when when you were at school or when you were at home? Were you always mentally in the ring? Was your mind on boxing all the time?
SHIELDS: No. I was more angry person growing up. When I wasn’t at boxing, I was just angry. Angry at home, angry at school. Angry walking home, angry walking to school. So, maybe like the age of 11 to 15 I was getting into a lot of fights with people.
FRIEDMAN: What were you so angry about?
SHIELDS: I was angry about what I had to go through as a kid. To me, it looked like everybody had everything, they had good parents, and they had food and they had a bed. And I always questioned, like why can't I have that? What’s so bad with me that I have to go through all this stuff, but the bullies and the mean kids and the stuck up girls—they got these great parents and friends and they got money. I was like, I’m a way better person than they are, and they get all this stuff. I kind of was like...I was more mad about that, because I was like, I shouldn't have to fend for myself as a kid. Everybody else has someone taking care of them, and I'm just out here doing everything by myself. So I was mad about that.
FRIEDMAN: When did you start to think about boxing as a long term goal? When did the Olympics enter your mind as something you wanted to pin your hopes and dreams on?
SHIELDS: At the age of 13. We used to get this monthly flyer. Nope, it was a yearly flyer, with all the boxing shows and all the boxing news that was going on in the USA or just in Michigan. And they had this section where they had announced that in the 2012 Olympics they would have women for the first time and they put the weight classes on there. And at the age of 13 I was 137 pounds and my coach, Jason Crutchfield at the time, told me, “You're going to fight 165.” And I was like “I'll never get that big.”
He knew. He said, “No are you going to be a big girl. Because your granny was tall, your great granny was tall, your uncle’s tall.” I didn’t know I'd be as tall as I am, or get as big, with all the meat I have on me now. [laughs]
That's when I started thinking you know what, “Ok we're going to get ready for the 2012 Olympics.” That was my first long term goal in boxing.
FRIEDMAN: And did you say that out loud like to Jason or to anyone in your life. Were you like alright, this is it? Or did you keep that to yourself?
SHIELDS: Me and Jason were always on the same accord. You know, he probably said it to me first and he said “this what we getting ready for.” He told me I'm going to fight at 165. Once he told me that I went home and I wrote it in my diary. And that was my goal. I didn’t really go around broadcasting it to my family and my friends. It was more of just like, a goal that me and my coach had together.
FRIEDMAN: How did your life change after you knew that was your goal?
SHIELDS: I just was always checking myself as a... as a kid. It was like church, school, prayer, boxing. And anything I didn't do, I didn’t do it because I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to try it. I knew it wasn't helpful for my boxing career. You know like the peer pressure of having sex, the peer pressure of smoking and drinking. I never did it because I didn't want to have any setbacks. I knew that smoking was bad for your lungs and drinking—I was scared of becoming an alcoholic like my mom. Sex with like, you don't have sex till marriage and it messes with your legs and everything like that. So with all those things I never did any of them just because of boxing. Boxing was like, you need your mind, body, and spirit—everything to be clean and to be healthy.
FRIEDMAN: So for how much you love boxing and how much you just talked about its importance in your life, I also know that there was a moment when you almost quit. Can you tell me what happened or what prompted that?
SHIELDS: We were in Mobile, Alabama. It was like a gymnasium room. I was sitting on the bleacher. I had probably just finished fighting, not even 10 minutes prior so I still had on my boxing uniform. I had kind of calmed down because walking to the ring for that fight, Evander Holyfield was ringside. I got super excited and then my coach had tell me to calm down because I wanted to fight so good that Evander Holyfield would say something about me. [laughs]
I was sitting there wondering. We had just found out about the Olympics. They said you had to be 16 or 17 to make it. And we never knew if I was old enough. But it was just my dream that I would be old enough so I could at least attempt to try to make the team.
Me and my coach had already strategized the plan on what we were going to do. And he said he was going to talk to the President [of USA Boxing]. I think it was Al Harold—Harold Al. I can't really remember it. My coached walked up to him, and my coach was talking to him for about 10, 15 minutes. I was over there looking at them, I kind of prayed that everything went the way it was supposed to go. That I would be able to compete in the last Olympic qualifier for the women.
FRIEDMAN: Do you remember what that prayer was like, that went through your head as you were sitting on the bleachers?
SHIELDS: Yeah I was just praying to God, asking him, like, “I’m not asking you for an Olympic gold medal. I’m asking you to give me a chance to compete for one.” I don’t want them to discriminate against me because of my age. I just want to be given a chance. Like if I'm 16 and I can beat all the girls who are 25, 27, 30. They’ve been boxing for 12, 15 years. If I can beat them, I wanted to prove it. And my dream was to be the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal. And this was the first Olympics. So I wanted my shot.
FRIEDMAN: And so all of this is going through you mind while your coach is talking to the President of USA Boxing. What did your coach come and tell you after that conversation?
SHIELDS: After my coach finished talking to him, he shook his hand and walked off and then, I seen that my coach was a little disappointed, and he didn't want to tell me. So the president came up to me and told me that I was too young. The president just told me, he said, “well you’re too young to go to the 2012 Olympics. But don’t get married. And don’t get pregnant. And I’ll see you in 2020.”
When he said that to me I kind of feel like my stomach dropped and I was... I was devastated. And I just kept telling myself like, well it's time to find something else. Because there’s no way I’m living my life like this for four more years. The Olympics was supposed to be my way out so if I wasn’t going to be given a chance because of my age, I didn’t want to do it anymore.
Even though I love boxing it still was—I still have a regular life where I needed it to be fixed.
FRIEDMAN: So they’re basically telling you that boxing in the 2012 Olympics wasn’t going to change your regular life. What was your reaction to that?
SHIELDS: After he came and said that to me directly, I think I walked away from the president and I told him “thank you” and everything and I think I went to the bathroom and I was probably a little emotional. And I think I cried a little bit.
Then I came out. Evander Holyfield waved me over and told me to come here. I don't know if he heard the bad news or not but… I was still kind of devastated. And when he called me over and I talked to him, we talked for about 30 minutes! When I was talking to him, I was just telling him like, you know, “I'm just devastated.” He told he watched my fight. He said “I don't mean to be offensive, but you fight like a man.”
FRIEDMAN: Were you like, “I've heard that before”?
SHIELDS: Yeah, I take that as a compliment, thank you. [laughs] From that conversation we just talked and he told me—I was just telling him how I felt. I was like, “I don't think I’mma box anymore.” He was like, “Why?” And I was like, “I’m too young to go to the Olympics. I want to turn pro but I don't want to turn pro going to the Olympics.”
He said “Just wait till 2016. Keep boxing, keep getting better.” And he was like “Take this as God giving me more time to get ready.” And I was like, “But I'm ready now.” And he's like, “I see that.” But he's like, “Still take it as a learning lesson to just be better because when you get ready for 2016 you’re gonna be so much better and so much stronger than you are now. They're not going to be able to deny you because of age. Nobody is going to be able to beat you.”
I kind of felt a little uplifted. But then, I was still sad because I was like, “Man, counting down 365 times four... like... yeah, bull crap.”
FRIEDMAN: So what did you decide to do next?
SHIELDS: Oh, I quit.
I've always been a homebody. So I was at home. I would just like, watch TV, or sleep, or walk to the store, or probably text on my phone. I was like, this is all I’m doing.
I did not want to go to gym. I didn't even want to think about boxing, but when you have a set routine that your body has every day at the gym seven til nine, I would find myself, when I walk into the store, start shadow boxing. And I'll be shadow boxing and throwing punches and then I had to tell myself to stop. You know, you're not going to the Olympics. Stop.
I was just like I was kind of lost. I would write in my diary about how mad I was and how I had to keep living like this. And one day my coach pulled up and he was like, “You coming out to the gym today?” And I was like, “I mean, I don't want to, but you're here.” He was like, “Get in the car.”
So I got in the car and after not training for about a week or so, soon as I got to the gym he was like, “Rex, get ready.” And I was like, “Get ready to spar?” He’s like “Yes.” I'm like, “I ain't been to the gym for a week.” He was like, “That’s your fault.”
We got into the ring. It was a different sparring partner, I don’t remember who it was but he seen how frustrated I was. I wasn't even boxing. I was just fighting. I was throwing really straight, hard punches like a straight one-two. I really wanted to hurt my sparring partner.
And my couch, after sparring, he just told me, he said “that's why you can’t quit.” And I was like, “What?” And he was like, “You can't quit because you need boxing. You need boxing to release whatever’s going on with you. If you don't release it, you're going to start doing what you did in the ring outside the ring. Don’t worry about what the president said. God always come through and find a way. There’s always a way around it.”
And I was like, “What are you saying?” He said, “You gotta stay faithful.”
I remember that I went home, and just prayed.
Then all of a sudden, a month later we get some paperwork, a month or two after the President of USA Boxing told me I was too young. And this said you have to be 17 by April 21st, 2012. So I had made the deadline by less than a month! It was the happiest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. [laughs]
FRIEDMAN: What happened right after?
SHIELDS: I fought in the last Olympic Qualifier. It was in Toledo, Ohio. First fight was against a girl named… Dara Shen. I stopped her. After her I fought a girl, I think, Melinda. I fought the 152 world champion Andrecia Wasson. She was from Michigan also. Rumor was, she had broke a girl neck. I had beat Andrecia too. A girl named Franchon Crews.
Next fight: Tika Hemingway. She was number three in the country. She was on a winning streak, just as I was. I beat Tika. I sent her to the losers bracket. Tika had fought her way back to the winner’s bracket. And I beat her in the finals, also: 15 to 23.
And that’s how I got my spot on the USA team to represent the country in the Olympics.
CLIP: The winner by a score of 19 points to 12, and Olympic Gold medalist. Claressa Shields! She can dance her way to the medal stand looking fine, capturing gold.
FRIEDMAN: And then you won a gold medal. Right?
SHIELDS: Yep. And then I won Olympic gold medal in 2012. And that 2016 dream wasn't dead because I went to the Olympics again.
CLIP: Announcer: Ok two-time gold medalist, what’s next for you? Claressa: I don’t know! I don’t know what’s next! I don’t know! Ah thank you Jesus! Ahhh! Announcer: Congratulations.
SHIELDS: And won another Olympic gold medal in 2016. And I ended my amateur career 77 wins, with one loss. And now I'm professional.
FRIEDMAN: You talked a lot about why you needed boxing, or why boxing was so good for you. But why do you think the sport needs you? Why are you good for boxing?
SHIELDS: Oh my goodness I feel like I've changed the sport of women's boxing alone. I feel like I kind of brung something to the table that a lot of girls just didn't have, or didn't get any recognition for. I feel like I'm the best woman fighter ever. And I have it all. You know, I can talk. I’m pretty. I can be sensitive and sincere and I can be cocky and super ambitious and I can fight. All in one. Holding all those things and actually say something and people believing what you say is very important in the sport of boxing.
FRIEDMAN: After winning two Olympic gold medals, Claressa moved from her hometown of Flint, Michigan to the warmer shores of Florida. And you can watch her on Showtime where she’s fighting as a professional boxer.
FRIEDMAN: Going Through It is an original series from MailChimp, and I’m your host Ann Friedman. I’m coached from the corner of the ring by producers Eleanor Kagan, Megan Tan, Gabrielle Lewis, and Claire Tighe. This episode was edited by Joel Lovell. It was scored and mixed by Hannis Brown. Thanks to our Executive Producer Max Linsky, who is my top podcast bro, and everyone at Pineapple Street Media.
FRIEDMAN: On the next episode...
HILLARY CLINTON: I'm Hillary Clinton and I'm a very active private citizen of the United States of America.
FRIEDMAN: What happens when you’re afraid you just can’t hack it? And to be clear, we’re not talking about, say, a national election. We’re talking about Wellesley College, and specifically Hillary Rodham’s freshman year.
CLINTON: It was clear that I just wasn’t doing well and I had never been in a class that I hadn’t done well in. So I was distraught and disappointed and thinking that maybe I should just leave because I was never going to be successful.
FRIEDMAN: I spoke to Secretary Clinton, who by this point is a pro at going through it. Even if that wasn’t always the case.
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is coming in 2020.
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is coming in 2020.
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