But securing endorsements isn’t the only difference between now and four years ago when Claressa Shields won the first of her two Olympic gold medals for boxing. No, this time, Shields understands better what she’s done.
And what she means.
To the city, she grew up in. To the young girls fighting in lonely boxing gyms. To her family, whom she hadn’t seen in months, because she’d moved away from Flint to the U.S. Olympic training headquarters in Colorado to help prepare her for a run at boxing immortality in Rio.
Claressa Shields is the first American boxer to win two back-to-back Olympic golds. Yet as she slipped on stage from behind a makeshift curtain in the west end of Flint’sBishop International Airport on Tuesday, she appeared as so much more.
►Related: Fans welcome Shields home after winning gold in Rio
Most immediately as a beacon for a hardscrabble city, whose struggles with contaminated water, poverty, gun violence, and hopelessness have been the subject of international news for decades.
No wonder then that hundreds of residents showed up to celebrate with her Tuesday. Waving flags. Chanting her name. Rising to fill the sun-lit terminal with joyous applause. Shouting out an “Amen!” every time she paused to thank God for pushing her when she didn’t think she could go any further.
“Was it hard?” she asked when she finally took the stage after several local politicians had served as the warm-up acts. “No, the fights weren’t …”
- “AMEN!” someone yelled during the pause.
- “But the journey?”
- Amen, indeed.
You’ll have to forgive Shields for getting emotional thinking about it, as she stood there on the stage, before a sea of red, white and blue, before her friends and family, before the embrace of a community that shaped her, and considered where she started, and what she’d had to endure.
A once-jailed father. An overwhelmed mother. Ruinous streets. Little money. Eleven homes in 12 years. Hunger. Assault. Neglect.
“I was one of those broken kids,” she said. “Felt like my life was never gonna get better.”
“He told me that,” she said.
More incredibly, she listened when it would’ve been easy not to, which is what makes a story like hers so humbling. She found a belief were so many of us couldn’t.
- Or wouldn’t.
- All she needed was a little bit of hope.
- “Look how far I ran with it,” she said.
►Related: Shields: ‘I worked so hard to be here.’
From Flint to London to Colorado to Rio and back, with a stop in China for the World Championships in between. Proof, as she said, that “no matter how bad your childhood was, you can still make it.”
Not that it should be this hard for anyone. Ever. Which was part of the message Shields delivered Tuesday.
Yeah, she made it. And so can others. But Flint needs hope, too. She intends to provide it.
As for what’s next in boxing, Shields plans to take at least two months away from the gym but has her sights on the 2020 Olympics and a third gold medal.
But she also plans to continue to work, to talk about her city, to keep the focus on the water crisis and the poverty, to remind us that strength and toughness and resiliency can come from anywhere and that a female boxer can — and should — be a face of Zappos or Mini Cooper or Powerade.
- “It was not an easy journey,” Shields told the crowd.
- But then they knew it. Because they’d lived it with her. Many of them live it still.
Insightful. Determined. Proud.
Not just of her Olympic medals, but of her roots, which she thought about during her gold medal bout, when she kept pounding the Netherlands’ Nouchka Fontijn, trying to knock her out for her hometown.
She knew they were watching. And she knows their stories. Just as she is writing her own. They are forever connected now.
- As Flint’s mayor, Dr. Karen Weaver, said:
- “There will be a Part II to (Flint’s) story. (Claressa) got Part II started.”