Pink Nails in Boxing Gloves: Claressa Shields' Tough Road to the Olympics

By Marc Hujer in Flint, Michigan

She comes from a broken family in a broken part of America. For years, she has fought teasing and stereotypes in what is supposedly a man's sport. But now Claressa Shields is headed to London determined to make history by winning the first gold medal in women's Olympic boxing.

REUTERS

The men have sent Claressa Shields to warm up before her daily training session, which starts at 4 p.m. Right now, they're hanging around in the parking lot outside Berston Field House in Flint, a depressed former industrial city near Detroit, Michigan. These muscular, broad-shouldered men once dreamt of becoming boxing champions. They are convinced that guys like them are the only true boxers, and that tears are a sign of weakness.

Everyone has turned up: the head trainer, the assistant trainers and the mentors. More and more people seem to be coming here the closer it gets to the Olympics in London.

One of the men sports a T-shirt proclaiming "Battle of the Sexes." The men have little doubt about who would win it. Behind them are their flashy, black SUVs that convey status in their impoverished neighborhoods. The General Motors factories in Flint used to produce Buicks, luxury cars that earned the town the nickname "Buick City." But now that GM has moved out, unemployment has climbed to nearly 9 percent.

Shield's coach, Jason Crutchfield, fields most of the questions because he knows the best stories about "Rez," as he calls her, as well as her most closely guarded secrets. He has been with her after she's lost fights, when she was frustrated, when she couldn't go forward, when her right was off or when she couldn't land her left jab or her right cross, her most deadly weapons. He also knows how she cries.

After looking over the assembled group, he imitates what it's like when she breaks down. "Wahahaaa," he bawls hysterically and exaggeratedly, as he thinks only women can cry. Then he throws himself theatrically onto the shoulder of the man next to him. "Coach, what should I do? Why did I lose?" he mockingly asks. And they all roar with laughter, as if he'd told a dirty joke. "Really," Crutchfield says, "she bawls just like a baby."

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Photo Gallery: A Girl's Dreams of Olympic Boxing Gold

A Stranger in a Man's World

It's a very strange world behind the iron door of Berston Field House. And it's a world that Claressa Shields doesn't really want to fit into -- not only because she's a girl, but also because she's far too successful. Shields is barely 17 years old, still goes to high school, collects stuffed animals and is one of only three female US boxers who will be traveling to the Olympic Games in London. She's one of the favorites in the middleweight division. And thanks to a near-perfect record of 26 victories and only a single loss, she's 12th in the world rankings. Shields could make history because women's boxing is making its Olympic debut this summer. Indeed, she could become a star in a sport that even her coach thinks should really remain a male bastion.

Shields has finished warming up when the men come back down to the underground boxing gym. Just like every other day, she has completed her tally of two miles on the gallery above the gym, contentedly jogging along in her Superman T-shirt and Betty Boop socks listening to hip-hop music on the cell phone in her hand.

When she's not in the ring, Shields is just a normal girl: an 11th-grader with a pleasant face, a winning laugh and an almost untamable thick mane of hair extensions. She loves texting and sends messages bursting with exclamation marks. Only her broad back gives any indication that she's a boxer.

Shields first went to Berston Field House five years ago and said she wanted to become a boxer. But Crutchfield told her he didn't train girls, so he sent her to another coach. But, later, when he saw the determination with which she threw punches, he started training her himself.

Now she stands in a windowless basement room. It is dominated by a boxing ring in the center. A punching bag bearing the words "Fight 4 Blood" hangs from the ceiling. The walls are adorned with pictures of the big names in boxing, including dozens showing Mohammed Ali with local greats. It's the portrait gallery of a sport that writer Joyce Carol Oates once called "the obverse of the feminine." As she wrote in her 1987 book on the sport. "Boxing is a purely masculine activity and it inhabits a purely masculine world … Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men."

Keeping Emotions Out of the Ring

A young man more than a head taller than Shields joins her in the ring for a sparring session. "Now it's going to get serious," Crutchfield says. She wears a helmet and a chest protector that she never dons during a real fight because she doesn't want to appear girlish.

Boxing coaches are at once authority figures and confidants. It's their job to send people into the ring for a fight that could be self-destructive. They must demand subordination and fanatical discipline. They must convince their boxers that it's necessary to beat another person to a pulp. That's their job, their reward. And, in Crutchfield's case, he also has to rob Shields of the last vestiges of her femininity: her emotions and her tears.

"Suck it up!" he shouts at her. He's jumped into the ring because she's lost her aggression. He leaps up and down at her side, ranting in his light-blue sweatpants. Shields is getting pummeled, taking hits to the shoulder, hip and head. After just two minutes, her mouth starts bleeding. Crutchfield shouts at her, she remonstrates, but he sees only rebelliousness. And then she breaks the golden rule: She throws her boxing gloves into the corner and runs out. Out of the basement, out onto the parking lot.

"They're going to beat you up," Crutchfield shouts after her. "London's going to be worse, a hundred times worse." He's already told her thousands of times that emotions don't belong in the gym. "She's alright," he says. "She does that here and there. And then she'll come back and say: 'Oh, I'm sorry.'"

The next day, Shields is back at school, back in 11th grade at Northwestern High School. She has prepared a presentation on boxing for her English class. A dozen boys and three girls are playing with their cell phones. Some have their feet on skateboards under the desk. There's a long delay because the teacher takes 15 minutes to turn on the computer and get the projector working. Finally, Shields gets her turn to speak. The first slide reads: "16!!! That was the age when I qualified for the Olympics."

Shields spent the morning preparing the presentation on her computer, although she accidentally forgot to save half of the slides. But she still has enough with which to tell her story, a story that begins and ends with boxing. She talks about Berston Field House, about the 2012 AIBA Women's World Boxing Championships in China, and about the Chinese, who she has depicted with a smiley face and a bowl of rice. The next slide has a big picture of her coach in the middle: Crutchfield the hero, Crutchfield with a trophy. "It only took me two days to fall in love with boxing," she says.

Fathers and Daughters

Jason Crutchfield has become something of a surrogate father to Shields, a replacement for the real one that she only ever sees every two or three months. His name is Clarence, but she calls him "Muffin." He keeps away from his daughter because he doesn't want her to see his failed life, a life without money or a steady job.

Once upon a time, Clarence was also a boxer who trained at Berston Field House, where he was known as "Cannonball." When his daughter was two, he was sent to prison for theft. He spent the next seven years there. After he was released, Shields would sometimes accompany him when he went to train at Berston Field House. She wanted to box, too. "I wanted to be like him," she recalls. But her father said boxing "was a man's sport."

A few weeks ago, Crutchfield brought her over to his house in Mount Morris, a suburb of Flint a 10-minute drive from Berston Field House. He shares the place with his girlfriend and their son. Crutchfield has three other sons and two daughters with other women, but he has little contact with them now.

He likes to show people around his house, especially the living room filled with family photos. But he's won't let us into Shields' room next to the kitchen. He says it's too messy, with stuffed animals all over the place. It's a girl's room, he explains, not the room of a champion. When Crutchfield recently caught her putting on nail polish, he lost his temper: "Definitely not pink," he said. "That's a girl's color."

A Shot at Redemption

Crutchfield sits by the room like a guard. In front of him, he's spread out all the trophies and belts Shields has won, the spoils of her boxing career thus far. They are also tokens of his success. After all, he is the father of her heroic tales. He has helped make her what she is today.

He looks after her, but he also wants complete control, to know when she goes to bed, what she eats -- preferably white meat and vegetables -- and the power to prevent her from putting on pink nail polish. He also wants to know who she talks with and meets. Whenever someone calls her on her cell phone, he asks who it was. He threatens to take her phone away before important bouts. He allows her to date boys -- provided, of course, that things stay "platonic."

He occasionally shouts at her. And she shouts back: "I can't help it! I just like boys!" He doesn't want her to be distracted. He remembers how distractions cost him his chance to shine. That was in 1983 when he was 19 years old and the top boxer in Flint. His record as a professional was impressive: eight wins, one loss and one draw. But then he got distracted. He was good-looking, and he loved women.

Today Crutchfield is unemployed. He used to lay TV cable, but he doesn't get any assignments anymore. Things would get pretty difficult if his girlfriend didn't have a job.

Separated before the Final Battle

Shields spent the last few weeks in Colorado Springs, south of Denver, at the USA Boxing training camp for the national squad. From there, she's heading straight to London. Crutchfield wasn't allowed to accompany her to Colorado Springs because he only has a level-3 coaching license.

Shields is now being trained by coaches with international experience. Her schedule is set by USA Boxing, an organization that didn't want to have anything to do with women for a long time. The federation has been overseeing the sport since 1888, but women were only officially admitted as members in 1993 after suing for the right. Resentment still lingers.

But the US has had a shortage of talented male boxers for years. The squad didn't bring home a single gold medal from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now it's pinning its hopes in London on its women -- and Claressa Shields, in particular. Joe Zanders, the former head coach of the Olympic team, allegedly told Crutchfield that Shields was "the Americans' best chance to win a gold medal."

Shields isn't like the other female American boxers. She's bigger, sterner, broader, less feminine -- and nothing like her teammate Marlen Esparza, who was photographed in an elegant summer dress for Vogue magazine. Speaking to the Boston Herald, Esparza even spoke of fights as if they were a night out. "When I get ready for a fight," she said, "it's kind of like I'm getting ready for a date. I take a shower. Perfume. I shave. I fix my hair. I pray."

When Shields left for Colorado Springs, she bought Crutchfield a farewell gift: a megaphone. It was meant as a joke, but only partly so.

Crutchfield had promised her he would go to London even if he wasn't allowed to be her official coach. He'll now be a mere spectator at the Olympics, in a seat far from the ring. Shields gave him the megaphone so she can hear what he says.

She needs her coach. She needs his encouragement, his ranting and even his insults, if need be.

She's learned to live with them. And she's tough.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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