Interview: Olympic Gold Medalist Claressa Shields Talks 'T-Rex' Documentary, Fighting for Her Dreams & Her Hometown of Flint, MI
Photo Credit: S & A
Film

Interview: Olympic Gold Medalist Claressa Shields Talks 'T-Rex' Documentary, Fighting for Her Dreams & Her Hometown of Flint, MI

Claressa Shields Claressa Shields

Every few days, I bargain with myself in an effort to get to the gym for some much needed exercise. As I pull on my gym shoes, I marinate over how I will reward myself for pushing through a three-mile run, or an Insanity class. I sweat solely for my health; I am no athlete. Still, my attitude towards fitness has vastly improved in the last decade. When I was seventeen, breaking a sweat ranked somewhere around leaving my relaxer in too long, or getting my cell phone taken away. It was literally one of the last things I wanted to do.

Unlike me, twenty-one-year-old Claressa “T-Rex” Shields lives to sweat. The World Champion Boxer took home the Gold Medal for the United States in the 2012 Olympic Games, the first year Women’s Boxing was considered for competition. As Shields gears up to head to the 2016 Olympic Games, her story (documented beautifully in the coming-of-age tale “T-Rex”) is headed to the big screen. The poignant and compelling documentary follows Shields, who hails from Flint, Michigan, as she quite literally fights her way to her dream. From family fallouts, to the coach that never thought he’d find a champion in a girl, Claressa Shields’ story is one for any athlete, and certainly for any Black woman.

I got the opportunity to chat with Claressa Shields about life since her historic win. We spoke about how she was continuously overlooked in the media back in 2012, the Flint Water Crisis, and what she wants people to learn from “T-Rex”.

Aramide Tinubu: Hi Claressa! I first wanted to just say congratulations on your historic win, and congratulations on making the Olympic team again. Those are some tremendous accomplishments. You’ve accomplished so much not just for boxers but for women and especially Black women.

Claressa Shields: Thank you so much

AT: The first thing I wanted to chat with you about is what has changed for you since winning your gold medal back in 2012. Obviously you were 17-years-old then, just about to enter into your senior year of high school and now your 21. Has your life changed drastically?

CS: My life has definitely changed for the better. Probably for about a year and a half, I was at a standstill. I went to college for a little bit, but it was just too much time that I was taking away from my boxing career, so I had to stop going so I could just focus on boxing. After I turned 19, I started making a lot of decisions for myself. I was training, fighting in the top tournaments, and I have continued to win. Maybe about a year and a half ago, I moved to Colorado Springs. I’ve been down there training and in 2015 I won the World Championship. I also won the 2016 World Championship a few weeks ago.

AT: Oh that’s wonderful!

CS: Thank you. So now I’m going to the Olympic Games. I’ll be going into the Games with a record of seventy-four wins and the one loss that I had four years ago.

AT: That one loss that you had in the Olympic Trials; you were so upset!

CS: Yes, but I’m going in as the two-time world champion and also the reigning Olympic gold medalist.

AT: Wow.

CS: So I’m really looking forward to it. I also have a new agent, and I have some endorsements now. I’m endorsed by Powerade and Dick’s Sporting Goods. I am also an ambassador for the “Us to Us” program which trains coaches to teach athletes. So with all of that, I’ve really just been training and dominating my sport, and getting some things in order.

AT: That’s incredible, I’m so happy for you. I know from watching “T-Rex” this is what you wanted, but it just took a moment to really get things moving in that direction. As you are approaching the 2016 Summer Games, what are you expecting this time around? I know you’re going to go hard. You’re going there to win, and you’re not about to play any games, but are you coming into these Games with a different mindset from the one you had back in 2012?

CS: You know what? Going into these Games, I can say that I have the same mindset. Even though I am the World Champ right now and I’ve been the World Champ for the past 4 or 5 years, I’m not going to underestimate anybody. I’m out here training as hard as I can so that I can put on the best performance that I can put on. With that, I know I cannot perform at the same level as my opponents, I have to perform as Claressa Shields, the best of the best. Therefore, if my opponents can keep up, then they can keep up. But if they can’t, it’s going to be even worse for them. I just always bring my A-game, and that’s something that the other girls will have to bring as well. So for me, I know that I just have to remain focused. I still feel like I just have to give everybody the best performance I can. For me, that’s just being respectful because for one, I’m representing women’s boxing and also, I don’t want them thinking, “She thinks she’s going to win, so she’s not going to come out here and fight hard.” I’m going to fight hard every time. Once the Olympics Games are over I’m going to be sore and bruised up, but I guarantee that I’ll come out on top again.

AT: After these Games will you move into the pro-leagues with boxing? If I’m not mistaken, you still compete in the amateur leagues.

CS: Well interestingly enough, they actually banned the word “amateur”.

AT: Oh really?!

CS: Yeah. So, we actually call ourselves elite fighters now, not professional. I fight on a worldwide level but I’m just taking it one tournament at a time. Once the Olympics are over and taken care of, whatever opportunities lie ahead, that’s what I’m going to decide to do. If there are better opportunities with me staying amateur and fighting in the 2020 Games, then I’ll stay. If there are more opportunities going professional, I’ll do that. It just depends on whose ready to get on board and who’s actually ready to take on the task of promoting women’s boxing.

AT: You’re right, that’s how you have to look at it, that’s how you’re going to get in everyone’s face and make your money, and do what you have to do. If it’s OK, I’d love to chat about your family, they were such a huge part of “T-Rex” and your journey. I also know you grew up in Flint, Michigan where much of the film is set. How are they doing? How were they affected by the Flint Water crisis?

CS: My family is doing pretty good right now. My little brother has his own apartment, and he has two kids now. My younger sister, Briana has a baby, and she has her own apartment too.

AT: Oh fantastic, that’s great.

CS: Yeah, and my mom is really taking good care of herself. She does not drink as much as she used to. She’s a lot happier, and everyone is just waiting on me to win the Olympics again because everyone just wants to get out of Flint, so that’s where I come in. I’m the one who has to carry the family. As of right now, the Water Crisis affects everyone in my family. Everybody uses the bottled water. They cook with the bottled water, they brush their teeth with the bottled water, they bathe with the bottled water and it’s just really bad. My family goes to the drives that they have around the city and they get the water for free and all of that, but it’s still just bad. Sometimes, I wonder if they forget that they have to live like that. Whenever I go home to Flint, my mom has to constantly remind me to use the bottled water. I’m just so used to using water freely, so it’s a huge adjustment. So everyone is just doing what they can to get by, but it’s not something they should even be dealing with.

AT: Oh absolutely not! No one should ever have to deal with that, it’s utterly horrific. It’s unfathomable to me that this has happened, and I really hope that the people who tried to cover this up are dealt with accordingly. It’s terrible!

CS: Yes.

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Claressa "T-Rex" Shields before a sparring session at FWC Berston Gym in Flint, Michigan Claressa "T-Rex" Shields before a sparring session at FWC Berston Gym in Flint, Michigan

AT: So let’s chat about Jason Crutchfield. Is he still your coach? How has your relationship with him changed in the past four years?

CS: No, Jason is not my coach anymore. I think we went our separate ways about two years ago. At first, our relationship was a little rocky, and we didn’t really talk much. But now, we’re back on a good path. We’re talking again, so it’s all love. I respect him and he respects me. He follows my career, even from the business side of things, and he’s pretty happy. He’s glad that I made the most out of all of my opportunities and he’s just very happy for me. I go down to his gym when I’m home, we get a couple of laughs in and we text occasionally, so we’re good.

AT: Very good, that’s great to hear. From the beginning of the film you were steadfast in your confidence not just as an athlete but also as a Black woman. How did that help you persevere after the 2012 Games when the media pretty much turned their attention to gymnast Gabby Douglas, who is an amazing athlete in her own right, but you were really pushed into the background despite your win. How did you continue to push forward despite all of that?

CS: You know what? I think the world has a definition of what a “woman” is, and I’m changing that definition. It’s not about being skinny and pretty and all of that, that’s not what being a woman, is about. It has a lot to do with what is inside. With me saying that, I’m not saying I don’t think I’m pretty, it’s just that I am a very strong woman. Inside my heart, and when you look at me, women like Serena Williams, and me we are built with very nice muscles. I guess sometimes that can be intimidating towards men, or even towards some women who aren’t built the same. So because of that, the first year and a half [post-2012 Olympics] I felt like I got left out of a couple of things. There were times when I felt that maybe my gold-medal weighed less because I didn’t get any attention. Now don’t get me wrong, I have so much respect for Gabby Douglas because she’s an amazing athlete. However, she was the 41st person to win an Olympic gold medal in the All Around Gymnastics competition in the U.S., though she was first African-American woman. I’m the first woman period to win a gold medal for the first competition ever for women’s boxing in the Olympics. To me that was a bigger deal, and I also felt like I had a great story to tell. I was so sad about all of it. But after that year and a half, I just decided I wouldn’t let the media decide when I would be happy about something, and I wouldn’t just wait around for the endorsements and all of that. It was depressing because you think, “They’re going to call one day, and they’re going to realize they left somebody out one day.” With the Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes box, they had pictures of the Olympians who went to the Games in 2012, and I think Battle Creek, Michigan was about four hours away from me at the time. They had people there who didn’t even medal in the Olympics. So that was hurtful.

AT: Especially since it was right around the corner from you essentially.

CS: Yes, so I felt left out of a lot things. Even with ESSENCE Magazine, I think once they had Gabby Douglas and all of the girls who had broke the record for the 4 x 100 dash, and they were all in the magazine posing together and I just thought, “I was there too. I talked to every single girl in this photograph.” I just kept thinking, “Why am I not being included?” But after feeling all of that for a year and a half I decided that was the past. I just decided to continue to be great without limits. So, every time I do something great, I’m going to post it, I’m going to talk about it. I’m going to keep inspiring people who look up to me and try to look past that. It was hard to let go, but God sent me a message, he said, “Good things come to those who wait.” I guess in 2012, I wasn’t ready for all of that yet, but now this time around, I’ve been doing the craziest things I’ve ever done. I think if I’d been offered that when I was 17, I would have said, “No.” (Laughing) So now I know how to prepare for this and focus while doing it as well.

AT: That’s so positive. In talking about inspiration and legacies, unfortunately as you know, the great Muhammad Ali recently passed away. How has his legacy shaped you as a boxer?

CS: You know what? I didn’t know that his passing would hit me so hard because when I met Muhammad Ali, he was ill and he wasn’t able to talk. But, I always wondered what he would have said to me if he would have been able to. But I do have a picture.

AT: When did you meet him?

CS: I met him, when I was 17 in Philadelphia. Muhammad Ali was receiving the Liberty Medal that year, and Laila Ali invited Susan Francia, who is a rower and won gold in 2012 and I to attend. So I did met him in person, and I’ve met Lalia a few times. I knew so much about him. I watched “The Rumble in the Jungle" where he beat George Foreman a hundred times, and “Thrilla in Manilla” against Joe Frazier. I’ve watched “Ali” when Will Smith played him. Muhammad Ali was just always himself; he was a very funny and outgoing guy. He loved people and people loved him. I couldn’t have imagined being anywhere else but Louisville, Kentucky the day of his memorial. I just had to go and say goodbye to him. His legacy will live on forever and he really showed me to always fight for what you believe in. Always. When you do that, you can never lose. That’s true because even if you don’t reach your goal, you’re a bit closer than you were before. He let me know it’s OK to be myself and to have my beliefs and still be great. He’ll always be The Greatest of All Time. Nobody will ever be able to take that from him. He brought millions of people together. Think about it, the kindest man in the world was a boxer. That’s crazy.

AT: What do you want viewers to take away from the film "T-Rex"?

CS: I wanted people to watch “T-Rex” and know that it doesn’t matter what you went through in the past. It doesn’t matter what your experiences and upbringing have been. You’re life is about your decisions. Even if your mom has five or seven kids and never graduated high school, you don’t have to be that same way. You can choose your own life. You can make the best out of your life, and I think a lot of people don’t know that it really comes down to their decisions on which way their life will go. Some decisions are hard and some are easy, but the ones that are hard you just make them, and you try to make the best out of them. Sometimes they don’t turn out how you thought they would, but you always just keep working toward your goal. I always want people to know that if you put a hundred percent into what you’re doing, that you’ll always progress.

AT: For sure! Well my final question for you is, what are you dreams and aspirations? You’ve achieved so much already, but what are your dreams going forward? What do you want next?

CS: I want to win another Olympic Gold medal in two months at the Rio Olympic Games, and after the Games, I want to get into acting. I want to be an actress, I think I can do dramas or maybe even a boxing movie, kind of like a Taraji P. Henson or something. I want to move my family to Florida as well. I’m not sure about going pro, but I want my boxing career to progress. Overall, I just want to go down in history as the best female fighter to ever live, that’s my overall goal.

AT: Well that’s wonderful! Thank you so much Claressa for talking to me, I had a wonderful time chatting with you, and I’m just so excited to share your story with our readers. I really want to encourage everyone to see “T-Rex” because it’s such a remarkable experience.

CS: Thank you!

AT: Thanks so much and good luck in Rio!

“T-Rex” opens Friday, June 24th in NYC at the Made in NY Media Center.


Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami


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