Even before she made it to the women’s middleweight boxing Olympic finals, 17-year-old Claressa Shields had celebrity potential.
She has the triumph-over-adversity bio down pat: the Flint, Mich. native did not meet her father, who was in and out of jail, until she was 9 years old. She lost early in the world championship rounds, but managed to snag a spot on the Olympic team and wound up being the last American boxer in the games.
Shields is also in the history books, as the youngest boxing member ever on America’s first female Olympic boxing team. Her Russian opponent Nadezda Torlopova, 33, is nearly twice her age. On Thursday, she defeated Torlopova to win a gold medal.
But whether those ingredients guarantee stardom remains to be seen.
If the twin stories of track hurdlers Lolo Jones and Dawn Harper have shown us anything, it’s that the media is a fickle beast, prone to some stories, not so much to others. It was Dawn Harper who won gold at the 2008 Beijing Games. As Rick Maese reports, Harper’s story was as equally fraught with rags-to-riches elements—she had to borrow someone else’s shoes to run in Beijing. But going into the 2012 Olympics, Lolo Jones was the familiar face, a considerable beauty with an attention-grabbing background. Even after Harper nabbed silver and fellow American Kellie Wells bronze in the 100 meter hurdles, the big story from the race was of Lolo Jones lashing out at the media for criticizing her.
Charisma, standard conventions of attractiveness, and likeability all work in a complicated calculus to determine what athletes’ names will still be talked about two, three, four months after their most memorable athletic accomplishments are over. Maria Sharapova, for example, is no slouch in the tennis department, but neither is she Serena Williams. Sharapova, though, was the most paid female tennis athlete last year, largely thanks to her lucrative endorsement deals. That Sharapova is tall, blond and slender, and from a region of the world known for its Victoria’s Secret models, may or may not have something to do it.
Whether Shields ends up raking in the big endorsement bucks or not remains to be seen. It can’t hurt to have a gold medal under the belt even if her face isn’t plastered on a cereal box — yet.
Watch a trailer from an upcoming documentary about Shields here: