Claressa Shields opens up about people doubting her boxing talent to Seventeen magazine.
This past February, I was at the U.S. Olympic team trials in Spokane, Washington, competing for a spot on the first-ever women's boxing team. I don't usually get nervous, but this time I couldn't help myself. My opponent, a former national champion who is nine years older than I am, was shoving me and talking trash right to my face. During the final round's last few seconds, I was breathing so heavy, it hurt my throat. But I kept fighting-and won! I was even named Most Outstanding Boxer! No one thought I could win-probably because it's so hard to think of being the best at anything where I'm from.
On the sidelines
Growing up in Flint, Michigan, I saw so many kids from my school end up in jail or unemployed, and gangs would hang out and cause trouble in my neighborhood. I had to learn how to protect myself, because it didn't feel like anyone else was protecting me. My parents split up-my dad had to serve jail time, and my mom was busy with my younger sister and brother. And in grade school, people bullied me because I was taller than the other girls. I felt put off to the side.
My dad would tell me stories about when he was an underground fighter. One day when I was 11, he told me he wished he had a son who could have been a real boxer. I thought, Why a son? I knew how to fight, so why couldn't I box?
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I couldn't get that thought out of my head, so the next day, I went to a local boxing gym with my friend from school to shadow him while he trained. As the coach showed us the different jabs and punches, something in me clicked. I felt like he was invested in me. I was hooked! I came in the next day and asked if I could start training with the young guys at the gym. The coach told me sure... with my parents' permission. I thought it would be a definite yes. But when I asked, my dad said no! "Boxing is a man's sport," he said. I couldn't believe he was serious. I refused to accept his answer. For days, I didn't stop talking about how much I wanted to do it, and eventually he agreed to let me go back to the gym. But he figured I would get beat up and quit. Little did he know, I'd do just the opposite.
In the ring
The first punch I learned was the jab. Second, the cross punch; third, the hook-after that, all the combinations and how to move my head and feet. It took me just two months to be ready to get in the ring! There aren't many girls in boxing, so I'd spar with the boys close to my size. I'd hear the guys at the gym make jokes about me because I was a girl and say, "I can take her," or "I'll beat her, easy!" I was like, "Throw on some gloves and let's go."
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From my first fight, I loved being in the ring. I tune everything out-the lights, the smells, the noise-so I'm in this zone where I'm performing only for myself. It's like a lie detector for your skills. At the end of the match, you know who's number one.
I went to the gym every day after school, doing 21⁄2-mile warm-up runs, shadowboxing in the ring, or sparring with the guys. When I was 14, I found out that women would be allowed to box in the 2012 Olympics. Back then, I had a hard time expressing my feelings to people, so I would write in my journals to get stuff off my chest. That night, I remember writing in my diary, "My dream is to win an Olympic gold medal."
Soon after, all my hard work began to pay off: At 15 years old, I made it to the Junior Olympics. It was then that I realized that if I wanted something bad enough, I could make it happen. A year later, I fought in my first adult tournament. I asked myself, Do you really think you can face these women who have way more experience? Is this too big a goal for a girl like me? But when my opponent looked at me as if beating me was going to be a piece of cake, I thought, I am going to prove her wrong. All those matchups with the guys at the gym left some bruises, but they helped me develop really tough skin. And so when I was in the ring with a serious competitor, I gave that fight everything I had. She underestimated me, and I won!
When I went to China in May for The Women's World Boxing Championships (the international qualifying tournament for the Olympics) and earned a spot on the team, I was so close to my dream, I could taste it! I know I am the best, and I want a gold medal to prove it.
Now that I'm training for the Olympics, I don't have time for fear. I can't slack off, even though sometimes I feel like I'm missing out on parties or football games-normal stuff. But my friends- who say they'd never box-have been so supportive and always come out to cheer me on. Sometimes I wonder if things will ever work out with a guy because of my training schedule. But if he's really a good guy, he'll understand when I need to go to practice or go to bed early. The guys who just want to play games-I'm not missing out on them; they're missing out on me. I have to make sure I'm doing what I'm supposed to do to accomplish my goals.
I've been proving people wrong since my dad first told me that girls couldn't box, and I'm going to keep proving them wrong. I feel good about where I've gotten so far, but I don't want to stop-I know I'll only be happy with myself if I get that gold medal I first dreamed about when I was 14.
Claressa made history on August 9, 2012 as she won the first-ever gold medal in women's Olympic boxing!
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