LONDON — Gloria Peek has yet to land a punch at the 2012 London Games, the first Olympics to include women’s boxing as a sport.
But at 62 years old, she has struck the blow of a lifetime.
There she was inside the ring at London’s Excel center on Wednesday, plying the sweat-drenched face of 17-year-old Claressa Shields with water and dispensing tactical adjustments that helped the gifted middleweight to a resounding 29-15 victory.
The only woman on the U.S. Olympic boxing team’s coaching staff, Peek will be in Shields’s corner when the high school junior from Flint, Mich., fights Russia’s Nadezda Torlopova on Thursday for an historic gold.
In a sense, Peek has been in the corners of all 36 women boxers at the 2012 Olympics — women from China, Kazakhstan, Tunisia, Brazil and beyond — having devoted her life’s work to a sport she believes offers as much to women as it has for centuries to men.
“It develops you mentally; it develops you physically. It gives you the skills necessary to be successful in all walks of life,” said Peek, who runs Team Norfolk Boxing Club in Virginia. “Boxing is also a warrior sport. It’s the last great domain of men, reserved for men and only men. And we’ve broken into it.”
Female boxers around the world rejoiced when the International Olympic Committee announced in 2009 it would add women’s boxing for the 2012 London Games.
On Wednesday, the history-making female boxers struggled to describe what it meant to compete for a medal in front of a flag-waving, ear-splitting, foot-stomping capacity crowd of 10,000.
With Prime Minister David Cameron in attendance, Wednesday’s Olympic boxing card opened with a tribute to the pioneer of women’s boxing, “Battling” Barbara Buttrick. And when the diminutive Buttrick, now 82, was introduced, it was plain to see why the Yorkshire native was known as “The Mighty Atom of the Ring” decades ago, when she toured Europe boxing in carnivals and taking on men in exhibitions despite her 4-foot-11, 98-pound frame.
In a brocade jacket and black slacks, Buttrick recounted the derision she encountered. “Girls shouldn’t fight! Girls shouldn’t do this! Girls shouldn’t do that!” she mocked. And she drew applause when she told the crowd that last year, nearly a half-century after the fact, she received an apology from London’s Daily Mirror for the mean things it had written about her.
Irish lightweight Katie Taylor, a four-time world champion, had the loudest cheering section, with seemingly all of Ireland on hand for her 17-9 triumph.
“I think I am in heaven right now,” said Taylor, Ireland’s most revered female athlete, who competes for the national soccer team and plays Gaelic football, as well.
The jubilant Irish press corps was in heaven, too, with one scribe braying, “We have always punched above our weight!”
Women’s boxing hasn’t exactly been embraced in the United States.
It took a lawsuit to force USA Boxing, the sport’s governing body, to lift its ban on women’s boxing in 1993 — 21 years after the passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation mandating equal opportunity for both genders in schools receiving federal funds.
Despite the mandatory safety measures in Olympic boxing — gloves, teeth protectors and headguards — concerns remain about the risk the sport poses for women. USA Boxing, for example, requires female participants to sign a waiver stating they’re not pregnant at the time of competition.
At 17, Shields says she’s not remotely thinking of having children anytime soon.
“America is a free country,” she adds. “The men get to do what they want; the women can do what they want, too.”
Shields was 11 when she chose boxing. Her father, who had boxed in Detroit area gyms as a young man, was imprisoned when Shields was two. She was nine when he was released.
“When he got out, he basically told me that he had wasted a whole bunch of his life in prison,” she said in an interview shortly before the Olympics started. “We were sitting there talking, and he mentioned that his passion was boxing. He told me about Laila Ali. And I decided I would box, so he could live some of his life through me.”
Shields’s father wasn’t in London to watch his daughter box Wednesday. But her longtime personal coach, Jason Crutchfield, who honed her skills and served as a surrogate parent, urged her on from the stands, jabbing a fist in the air as a cue to put her own mighty jab to use.
Shields won the first round 7-5, then landed several punches while battling from the ropes much of the second round to extend her lead to 12-8.
During breaks between rounds, Peek urged Shields to stick to the tactics they had discussed and to stay off the ropes.
“She’s a dog out there: She wants to jump on ’em,” Peek said. “But she has to learn to stay calm and under control and use those phenomenal skills she has.”
Shields was so devastating in the third round that the referee issued a standing eight count to make sure Volnova could continue.
“That’s the performance I wanted everybody to see,” Shields said afterward, her record now 28-1, one victory shy of a gold medal.
Her teammate Marlen Esparza, a 112-pound flyweight from Houston, dropped a tough semifinal, 10-8, to Ren CanCan of China. Esparza, who trained 11 years for this moment, took bronze.
With Shields guaranteed at least silver, the U.S. women will bring home two medals while the U.S. men failed to win a single medal for the first time in Olympic history.
Even before the London Games got underway, Peek predicted that the U.S. women would inject a sorely needed spark into the sport.
“I think they’re revitalizing the amateur boxing for the men,” Peek said. “You’ve got women coming into the sport, and they have play catch-up. They don’t have all those years of experience. So they’re willing to work harder and put in more time. So there’s a lot more hunger, a lot more tenacity.”
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