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Flint's favorite daughter: Claressa Shields takes gold

Seventeen-year-old Claressa Shields has won the first US women’s gold medal in boxing.

And her hometown of Flint is celebrating. Residents came together to watch Claressa’s triumph in a standing-room-only bar downtown. Everyone was there, from the mayor, to families with babies strapped into high chairs.

And for the millionth time, Clarence Shields is tells the story of how his daughter became a boxer. “I taught everybody else how to fight, and nobody picked up the torch. And I told her the story of Muhammad Ali and his daughter, Leila Ali. And a week later she asked me, could she box? And I told her, hell no.”

Obviously, he came around. “[Because of] the fact that she wanted to do it. And she said what made her want to do it, was I told her it was a predominant male sport. And that made her mad. And if that’s the case, well I’m glad I made her mad!”

So is Eriatta Bates. She’s Claressa Shields’ age, just 17, and a varsity basketball player. She says having someone like Shields take the spotlight is refreshing. “Because right now Flint is known as like, violence. So we can be known, as like, boxing and more greats. Maybe people will start looking at us more and paying attention to us more.”

And she’s not far off – there are a dozen media outlets here. And they all ask the mayor the same question: can Flint get off the ropes of crime and unemployment, beat the odds like their hometown girl? Mayor Dayne Walling says, of course.  “She has put a great face on our community. And her work ethic and her integrity, all of that is what Flint wants to be about. We want to be a community  that’s hard working, that’s safe, a place where kids have great opportunity. So she does embody a lot of our hopes and dreams right now.”

Yet that’s a lot on the shoulders of one 17 year old, however crazy strong those shoulders might be. Lisa Shields is Claressa’s step-mom.  She says Claressa knows the town is turning out like this, she can see it on a live stream in London. And Lisa says, yeah, sometimes it’s a lot for one teenager to take. “Sometimes she feel like it’s a weight on her, because it’s for everyone else. But you know her dad and I always tell her, regardless to what, only you are in that ring. And do this for you. This is a dream that you have sweetheart, so don’t worry about Flint. Because we’re proud of you however it goes.”

As the match is about to begin, Lisa Shields leads the crowd in a prayer. “So Lord, just keep your arms of protection around her, and make her punches accurate, Father God, that she wins this race! Amen! AMEN!”

And then it starts. Shields is up against Russian Nadezda Torlopova, who at 33 is almost twice her age.  Shields hangs back at first, then in the third round, becomes the aggressor. She’s so fast you hardly see her move until she’s right up under her opponent, with quick, fierce jabs.

She takes the lead and her spirit comes out in the final round. Ducking and weaving out of grasp, Shields sticks her tongue out at her opponent in the final moments. And just like that, it’s over. Shields is the winner, final score 19-12.

Her stoic face cracks, first laughing then crying. Her dad Clarence Shields is crying too. He says he doesn’t know what he’s going to say his daughter. But it won’t be, “good job.” “I’m just gonna give her a hug and a kiss. I’ll never tell her that, because she the champ. She the champ! She don’t need me to tell her that no more!”

When Claressa Shields comes home, it’ll be as one of the first female medalists in boxing. And as Flint’s most famous daughter. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.