The journey for all Olympic athletes begins in the same place: their hometown. And for Claressa Shields – who shocked the world at the London 2012 Olympic Games by becoming the first American woman to win a boxing gold medal – that’s Flint, Mich., where she stepped out of a broken home and into the ring at age 11.
In the nearly four years since winning gold as a 17-year-old darkhorse, Shields has gone undefeated in more than 35 bouts. A film based on Claressa’s incredible life story is currently in development at Universal Pictures.
Now, as all eyes turn to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Shields is featured in the latest chapter of the POWERADE® “Just a Kid” Olympic campaign, which returns to showcase athletes from humble beginnings who overcome adversity to achieve sporting greatness. The campaign also includes U.S. Olympian Lopez Lomong (U.S. men’s track & field) and U.S. Olympic hopeful Shakur Stevenson (U.S. men’s boxing), and will bring to life each athlete’s inspiring story from their hometown to Rio.
We caught up with Shields by phone from the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where she is gearing up for another gold medal bid in Rio.
Who does it mean to be ‘Just a Kid’ from Flint?
The campaign makes me think back to when I was a kid growing up. I didn’t have the best home life, but I’ve been able to show that it doesn’t matter where you’re from. I always carry Flint in my heart. We don’t give up. We don’t like second place.
Flint has been in the news a lot over the last year, and not for the best reasons. Do you hope your story and this campaign will help paint your hometown in a more positive light?
Yes. Whenever I go back home, despite all the bad news, everyone is excited to hear about me winning boxing matches. And now they’ve heard I’m going back to the Olympics. So being a part of the POWERADE campaign will add to this excitement.
You picked up boxing at age 11. Were you an athlete before that?
I played a little basketball at school and was pretty good at track, but boxing was the first sport I took seriously. At the age of 11, I didn’t even think about putting on gloves or boxing. All I thought about was fighting, and showing my dad that I wasn’t weak. After going down to the gym and seeing guys sparring, I thought “I want to do that!” Learning boxing and the discipline that comes with it is the hard part… so I’m glad I started at a young age. From day one, I learned about the importance of eating right, going to bed on time, and staying hydrated.
How is boxing different from fighting, and what did you learn as you started training?
Boxing is a thinking sport. You have to follow a set of rules and develop certain skills. You have to know how to hit and not get hit. I’m boxing against girls who are taller than me and stronger than me, so I have to use my mental strength to get through the match. Everyone compares boxing to chess. I don’t know how to play chess, but I’m pretty good at playing chess in the ring.
What does it take to be a champion boxer?
You have to have a great coach, you have to have discipline, and you have to have a lot of heart. You can’t box if you like the sport… you have to love it. And I love it. I want to get in the ring and show everyone my skills, my power, my speed, my toughness. Some matches will be even, so it comes down to who puts their heart on the line and keeps going. When both boxers are dead tired… who will dig deep and win those last 10 seconds?
Does being from Flint make you a better boxer?
I think it does, yeah. I think having a tough upbringing made me mentally tougher. I know how to handle myself. I also learned that if you want something done, you have to do it yourself. You have to outwork your opponent, stay focused, and just be smart.
When you won the gold in London, you were only 17. You recently turned 21. How are you a different boxer and woman today?
The 17-year-old Claressa wouldn’t stand a chance against the 21-year-old Claressa! In 2012, I was raw. I didn’t care about my hair. I didn’t care about what people said about me. I was quiet, I had a speech impediment. I wasn’t a good speaker and was very private. I didn’t want anyone in my business and hated giving interviews. Now, I actually care about my appearance all the time. I get my nails and eyebrows done. I shave my legs. Those are things I didn’t care about before. When I was 17, the only thing that mattered to me was boxing. All I wanted to do was win the gold medal. I box differently now. I get hit way less. I know how to move my feet and move my head. I’m the same weight as I was in 2012 but am 10 times stronger. I’m a much smarter boxer, too. I’m stronger mentally. I’m a lot calmer and nicer, too. But I’m still a great boxer. Some things have changed and some haven’t.
Can boxing champs actually be nice?
Oh my goodness. I’m super nice!
Well, you sound pretty nice…
I’m very nice! People say, “Ooh, she’s a boxer… she hits people!” Then they meet me and say “You’re not the same girl I saw on TV!” People expect me to be much bigger than I am – I’m a 165-pound middleweight.
How would you compare Claressa inside the ring with Claressa outside the ring?
Outside the ring, I’m big on respect. You get what you give. I try to respect people. Inside the ring, I put everything else aside. I transform. My muscles get bigger, I get taller and I get stronger. I feel fierce. And I’m not backing down to anyone. It shows that I’m “Just a Kid” from Flint. I’m taking the anger and frustration of growing up like I did and applying it in the ring, but I’m doing it in a beautiful way. I’m a skilled boxer. And as soon as the last bell rings, I always hug my opponent. Great sportsmanship is important to me.
Four years between Olympic Games must seem like an eternity. How do you stay motivated and hungry?
I take it one tournament at a time. And between tournaments, I take it one day and one workout at a time. I focus on being better today than I was yesterday. A lot of my motivation comes from when I won gold in 2012. I was kind of upset that I didn’t get any endorsements. Those things motivate me to get better both inside and outside the ring. My family motivates me, too. I have to take care of my family, so I train six or seven hours a day - to help them have a better life. If I don’t, no one will. So when I’m dead tired, and my coach says “I need one more minute from you, Claressa”, I’ll think not only about my future but also my family’s future. That motivates me every day. And the fact that there are little girls in Flint who look up to me... I want to give them hope. If they ever think they can’t do something, I want them to say, “Claressa did it. She finished high school. She made it to The Olympics. And now she’s in a POWERADE campaign.” I want them to understand that it doesn’t matter where you’re from or who your parents are… you can do anything.
In London, no one really expected you to win gold. Things will be much different in Rio, where you’ll be favored to repeat. Do you feel pressure?
I’ve trained too much and too hard to allow myself to feel pressure. Even though I’m Number One, I always see myself as the underdog. I go into every fight telling myself I have to give 300 percent because my opponent will always fight harder against me than they would against anyone else, because beating Claressa Shields would be like winning an Olympic gold medal. I always have to be on my “A” game. I’m excited to have the chance to defend my gold medal and compete against the best women boxers in the world. I want to show them I’m the best female boxer there is. That’s my goal.
“Just a Kid” digital spots of each athlete premiered this month. The campaign continues into the summer with limited-edition gold foil “Just a Kid from the USA” t-shirts from POWERADE’s online marketplace (www.justakidfrom.com), a 30-second TV commercial with Shakur Stevenson, and limited-edition Olympic packaging on one of POWERADE’s newest varieties, Watermelon Strawberry Wave™.