“My grandmother told me whatever happened, to keep boxing”

Claressa Shields’ pursuit of a second gold medal

Claressa Shields was the first American woman to win Olympic gold in boxing. At this year’s Summer Olympics, Shields could become the first American boxer of either gender to win two gold medals. I talked with Shields about her family, her hometown, and her playlist. Here’s an excerpt of that interview (first published on Talk Story).

You’ve said your grandmother was your inspiration. Is there anything specific she did or said to send you along this career path?

My grandmother was a poet. She had a very hard exterior. Anybody who knew her said, “She’s mean,” but if you really got to know her, she showed you love and care. Whatever you decided to do, she was going to support you and be there for you. She always wanted equal rights in sports for women and men. When I was out there in the yard playing football, she didn’t mind when I was racing with the guys up and down the street. The only time she would get mad is when I would hurt myself. Also, she would get upset if I cried in front of her. She never liked seeing me crying, and I was a crybaby when I was younger.

She always uplifted me. She was always just like, “If you’re going to do something, put your best effort forward and don’t really worry about what nobody has to say.”

My grandmother told me no matter what happened, to keep boxing. She could tell how dedicated I was to the sport.

Do you remember the first time you took a punch to the face?

The first time I got in the ring was with a boy who had been boxing ever since he was seven years old. We were 11. This kid, he was taunting me every day. He kept saying, “Ooh, I can’t wait to make you spar me. I’m gonna beat you up. You’re a girl, you’re not supposed to be down here.” I think he kinda had a crush on me.

He was a few months older than me. He was shorter but he weighed more than me at the time. I had been training really hard, and I had never been inside the ring, so my coach wanted to see what I could do. I walked in the gym, and my coach said, “Glove up.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Go get your headgear.” He had said I couldn’t spar until six months; I had only been training for two. I ran in there so fast and grabbed my headgear, because I was afraid he was going to change his mind. (The kid and me) got ready to spar, and he was looking at me like he was just going to kill me. But I knew how to scrap. The bell rang. We went out there — woo!, and I was throwing at him, and he was trying to come out there and hit me in my face. He threw a jab, and my eyes watered and I kinda felt everyone looking. But once my eyes watered, I jumped all over him. I’m talking about jab, right hand, letting my hands go like I was crazy. His granddad was yelling, “You’re getting beat up by a girl?”

I got out of the ring and I was laughing. Coach told me to get on the bag. I was hitting the bag, and then this guy walked up and said, “Lil dude, you can fight!” I said, “What? I’m a girl.” He jumped in the air, his eyes got big, and he started telling everybody, “That’s a girl!“ Nobody was used to seeing a girl down there in the ring.

You said one of the reasons that you box is to prove men wrong. If that’s part of the motivation, then how do you make decisions about where to pay attention to male feedback and comments?

I’ve let negative comments drive me to do better and prove people wrong. It’s still a problem. It’s every now and then where I have a freakin’ internet troll who’ll mess with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and I gotta block the same person on all three websites because they want to mess with me so bad and they want to get a word out of me. Some dumb things, I have responded to, but I’ve deleted it after. I mean, this person has less than a thousand followers, who cares? Recently I’ve just decided to respond to the positive stuff, and the negative, just leave it alone. I can’t get mad at every hater — that’s their job. I’ve been embracing the people who praise me more, people who value what I do. I’ve seen negative comments where people say, “Women’s boxing isn’t going to make it, you might as well stop boxing and go to school.” It’s just disrespect, and all they want to do is say that they got a response out of me.

I’m a social media junkie but I try to stay away from it, more just listening to my music and centering myself, the last couple of days before I fight.

Is there something specific from pop culture that gets you fired up before a match?

I train from tournament to tournament. Some tournaments, I listen to strictly rap to get pumped up. Meek Mill, Drake, Lil Wayne. Where I’m like, “I’m that girl, you’re not gonna beat me,” I have to get in that mode. And then I always listen to gospel, to calm my nerves down. There are some times when I’m listening to love songs. Getting ready, I’m listening to The Temptations, and Alicia Keys.

Sometimes my nerves are too calm, so I need to get amped up, in that mood. But there’s some times when I’m super comfortable, when I’m good in my skin, and I don’t need to do that.

Up until this winter’s water crisis, you were probably the biggest news out of Flint. As a star who comes from that city, is there anything you think people should know that has been under-covered in the press?

Besides the water issue, murders have been the biggest thing that’s been overlooked in Flint. The water issue is huge, and everybody has to focus on it. All the celebrities came and gave water. But before the water crisis, we’ve always had a problem with murder, we’ve always needed a stronger police force, we always needed cameras up on the lightpole like other cities have.

As you train for the summer Olympics, is there anything different about your regimen?

I have a lot more media coverage. I have all these people looking up to me, writing to me all the time. I have to make sure I don’t let the media define who I am. When you’re a superstar, and everybody’s doing everything to make you feel like a superstar, sometimes you feel like you don’t have to put in the hard work, that you already have it made. But I haven’t won the Olympics yet! I I have to make sure I stay grounded and actually get it done.

What helps me stay grounded is my friends. Everybody’s excited I’m getting endorsements, and sponsorships, and I’m in commercials. I’m in all these magazines, TV shows. But they always remind me, “You haven’t done it yet; always remember where you came from.” Where I came from, you can have all the money in the world, but once you fall off, you can see who’s there for you. Some of the people around me in 2012, 2013, even 2014, I had to cut off, because I needed to get my circle smaller. For the past two years, I’ve maybe been in contact with about 20 people that I talk to on a day-to-day basis. It used to be hundreds of people — people who I thought cared about me but didn’t. People who, as long as I’m doing good, they care, but soon as I’m doing bad, they don’t really care. I definitely separated myself.

People always remind me about how tough I am. I see how much I’m changing. I get my hair done now, I get my nails done — sometimes I look in the mirror (and say), “I can’t believe you’re a boxer.” Because I’m so pretty now. The way I take care of myself now, and how my smile is — I can sing a little bit…“Why are you boxing?”

Because I love it and I’m good at it, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.

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