She laughed throughout the medal ceremony, after her 19-12 victory over Russian Nadezda Torlopova made Shields, a middleweight, the only American boxer at these Olympics — and the first U.S. woman — to win boxing gold. The whole time she kept grabbing at the shiny disc, making sure it was real and that it was really hers. Truth is, that medal might be the most believable part of Shields’s journey.
Her new prize, she said, is something she’ll wear every single day because it represents so much.
“I earned this,” she said. “This is my medal. I worked too hard. I worked really hard for this medal. I can’t even explain all the pain that I had went through, all the people I had to do deal with. And just life, period.”
Just a teenager — 165 pounds packed with personality, strength and charm — Shields has a lot of life experience behind her. Too much of it, really. She’s from Flint, Mich., a hard-luck town where every victory is a big one. She knows her parents, but splits her time living with an aunt and her boxing coach. Shields recently told Essence magazine that she was molested and raped by a family acquaintance when she was younger.
Her father served time in prison for breaking and entering, and she didn’t know him until she was 9. When he got out, Bo Shields, a former fighter, introduced his daughter to the boxing game.
At age 11, she wandered into a gym and met Jason Crutchfield, a journeyman fighter who made ends meet working construction. Shields picked up the basics quickly, and by time she was 13 — and women’s boxing was an exhibition sport in Beijing — Crutchfield began talking to her about winning an Olympic medal.
While Shields had a clear goal that she was running toward, she could never lose sight of what she was running from. In Flint, hope is a precious commodity.
“When I used to go running, I used to see all these crackheads, these drug addicts. I just didn’t want to be like them,” Shields said. “I didn’t want to be like them at all. I wanted to have a good life.”
Working daily with Crutchfield, Shields became the youngest boxer to make the U.S. team. Her family couldn’t afford to come to London, but her coach did. He helped guide her through the tough bracket.
Shields cruised the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds and went to bed Wednesday night knowing she’d face the talented Russian in the gold medal match.
She couldn’t sleep and kept asking herself, “Am I really fighting for gold?” She was out of bed at 5 a.m. Later in the morning, Crutchfield talked to his star pupil via Skype, bringing in Lissus Walker, Crutchfield’s old boxing coach, on a three-way call. It was barely 6 a.m. back in Flint, but Walker helped dissect the previous day’s semifinal bout and talked about adjustments that Shields needed to make.