She's still in high school, but boxer Claressa Shields, 17, is also an Olympic gold medalist, after she won her middleweight final Thursday. She defeated Russia's Nadezda Torlopova by a score of 19-12.
It was the first gold medal ever awarded for women's middleweight boxing. And by the time the match started, Shields, who was featured on NPR while training in Flint, Mich., represented America's only hope for a gold medal in boxing at the London 2012 Games. Welterweight Errol Spence of Texas lost his quarterfinal, leaving all the U.S. hopes to rest on Shields' shoulders.
Update at 6:10 p.m. ET: One of Shields' heroes is legendary boxer Sugar Ray Leonard — who tweeted about her earlier this week: "Your Jab is so solid use it more! Your Hook, wow (just like mine) win every round and bring home the Gold Claressa!"
Speaking by phone with All Things Considered co-host Melissa Block hours after her match, Shields said, "Yeah, you know I was kinda shocked that he tweeted me. I didn't know, because he didn't tag me in it. I was like, What?"
"Just hearing he's been watching me is a complement," she said. "It means a lot, because he's somebody who I studied. It was great."
As for her gold medal match, Shields admits that she enjoyed it — particularly the final round.
"I was having fun, making her miss, making her pay," she said of Torlopova. "I wish I could've hit her with more punches. But, you know, I made them count. So everything worked out good."
And she says that her father, who at first doubted that his little girl could box, has become a source of good advice, helping her navigate the ups and downs of tournament boxing.
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Torlopova, 33, had previously won bronze at this year's world championships. As the gold medal match opened, she and Shields traded quick jabs, as each tried to put points on the board. In two separate instances, Shields landed a hard right and a quick left to Torlopova's headgear. Then Shields missed with a high hook that was wildly off the mark.
But that was the exception, not the rule, as Shields' accuracy and speed challenged the Russian from the start. The two boxers are both listed at 5'9, so neither had a reach advantage.
In the second round, the two had more sustained exchanges, as they put combinations together and landed a few body shots at close quarters. With both fighters showing themselves willing to stand toe-to-toe and exchange shots, the crowd roared its approval.
With each boxer seeking to be aggressive, Shields established herself in the center of the ring, fending off Torlopova with quick jabs.
"You're getting hit too much," her trainer told Shields after that round. "I don't want you getting hit so much."
Midway through the match, Torlopova's handspeed seemed to have slowed down just a bit — and Shields was energized, dancing in the ring, landing punches and eluding most of those thrown by Torlopova.
The two fighters even punched their way out of a clinch, instead of allowing the referee to come in and separate them. The flurry that followed saw Shields go bouncing against the ropes, but she moved herself out of trouble, circling to her left.
Then Shields stalked toward Torlopova with her hands down, seeming to dare the Russian to try to hit her. But that didn't last, as she soon re-established her guard, clenching her gloves up around her face.
"You did a good job," her trainer said after that second round. "You did some of the things that you wanted to do. Now let's have some fun."
Shields seemed to do that in this gold medal match, at one point even sticking out her tongue at her Russian opponent.
In the third and final round, Shields showed her technical ability, staying centered over her feet and ducking beneath three consecutive looping punches from Torlopova.
Then Shields took a glancing blow of the front of her headgear, only to swivel beneath the Russian's right hand to deliver a hard left to Torlopova's cheek.
The boxers clinched a few more times, threw a few more punches, and it was all over.
Back in February, Claressa's coach in Flint, Jason Crutchfield, said he noticed her talent and potential one week after she walked into his gym.
"A coach always wants a champion; that's why we coach," Crutchfield said back then. "I just never thought it was going to be a girl."
At these Olympics, when the American boxing champion could only be a girl, Shields proved her doubters wrong. And she delivered on the promise she has shown in her young career.
The enormity of what she had accomplished seemed to sink in for Shields only as the gold medal went around her neck, when she grinned and threw her head back and bobbed around. I can't say I've ever seen an athlete so animated on the podium's top step.
And as the U.S. national anthem played, Shields sang along — until she couldn't anymore, because the smile on her face had become too wide.
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Now, we're going to hear from London, from an Olympian who won gold today in women's boxing. This is the first Olympics to allow women to box, and American Claressa Shields, just 17 years old, from Flint, Michigan, fought her way to the gold medal in the middleweight class. And Claressa Shields joins me from the boxing arena in London. Claressa, what a huge day for you. Congratulations.
CLARESSA SHIELDS: Thank you.
BLOCK: You know, I thought I heard the team coach, Gloria Peek, tell you after the second of four rounds: You did a good job. Now, let's have some fun. Was it fun?
SHIELDS: Yeah. I had a lot of fun, you know? I dropped my hands, moved my head, you know? I was having fun, making her miss, making her pay. I was (unintelligible) with more punches, but, you know, I had made them count, so everything worked out good.
BLOCK: Claressa, we aired a long profile of you on the program earlier this year, and I wanted to listen to a clip from it with you. This is you talking with your father, a former boxer, and you were remembering the first conversation you had with him about boxing when you were little, and you told him: Maybe you can live your dream through me. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
SHIELDS: You said boxing is a man's sport. That made me so - it made me so mad.
CLARENCE SHIELDS: And you should have took it that way.
That was a chauvinist statement that a girl can't do it. So, you know, you was right.
SHIELDS: And I've been at it ever since. I'm still proving people wrong.
SHIELDS: Truth be known. I just think, little momma, you are awesome.
BLOCK: Claressa, your father wasn't able to be there in London. What do you think this means for him?
SHIELDS: Oh, my dad, he's watching me every day fight. They had like a huge get-together up in Flint. And he always gave me a good word, like whenever I (unintelligible) like saying that I didn't want to box, like my dad always like, you know, you need to go and sleep it off because my dad knows. He knows how his attitude is, and my attitude is kind of like his. So my dad, he's really happy right now.
BLOCK: You know, I think somebody else who's going to be very happy is one of your heroes and somebody who sent you a tweet this week, Sugar Ray Leonard, who tweeted...
BLOCK: ...to you: Your jab is so solid. Use it more. Your hook, wow, just like mine. Win every round and bring home the gold.
SHIELDS: Yeah. You know, I was kind of shocked that he tweeted me. I didn't even know because he didn't tag me in it. I was like what? And I re-tweeted, and I was like, wow, you know? Just having him watch me is a compliment. It means a lot because he's somebody who I studied. It was great.
BLOCK: Well, you have dreamed of - about this moment for quite a long time now, even though you're only 17. Now that you have this Olympic gold, what's next?
SHIELDS: I don't know, you know? It's like tomorrow, I don't know, should I get up and train, you know? It's like I don't know what to do now, you know? This has been my dream the last four or five years. This is what I worked toward every day. It's still unbelievable that I, you know, that I won the gold medal. Yeah. I'm just - I don't know what I'm going to do now, you know? I'm just going to enjoy the moment. I haven't even cried yet. It's like I feel it's kind of unreal. I always, always go to sleep and then I wake up and then I realize something, that's when I go berserk, like I did at the Olympic trials.
BLOCK: Well, Claressa, congratulations again and have fun going berserk with your victory.
SHIELDS: OK. Thank you. Hope to. Bye.
BLOCK: Bye-bye. That's boxer Claressa Shields, who today won gold in the women's middleweight category at the Olympics. And you can find Claressa's radio diary and photos of her and other female boxers at npr.org. They come to us from Joe Richman and Sue Jaye Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.