A fighting chance

"I always want to fight against the best," Claressa Shields says. "When I get in the ring, I'm going to figure out how to win." Tom McKenzie

In the first Olympics in which women will compete for boxing medals, a 17-year-old from Michigan is ranked No. 1 in the nation in her weight class. She needs only a top-eight finish at an event in China later this week to qualify.

Trust us; this golden opportunity is not lost on Claressa Shields, either.

Shields has been training endlessly for this chance. With her coach and trainer, Jason Crutchfield, by her side, the young boxer has visions of gold this summer in London, 108 years after women's boxing first appeared in the Olympics as a display event. (At the 1904 Olympics in St . Louis, women competed in boxing but were not eligible for medals.)

"It would mean everything to me to get a spot so that people could stop calling me an 'Olympic hopeful,'" Shields said. "I know I can do it. I'm telling everyone I will be there."

Shields credits her passion for the sport to her father, Bo, who competed in underground boxing and fighting leagues. Bo spent seven years in prison but was out by the time his daughter was 9. One of the first things he did was take her to the gym.

"I didn't really even meet him until I was 9," she said. "But he took me to the gym and showed me the sport. After that, I just wanted to be like my dad."

But Shields, a junior at Northwestern (Flint, Mich.), was not simply welcomed into the sport with open arms. Her father told her it was a sport for boys. Crutchfield asked her why she wanted to box. That only fueled the fire.

Ever since, Shields has been obsessed with the sport, training daily and cutting out anything that could derail her dream.

"It's a real individual sport," she said. "I grew up fighting people one-on-one. If you won, you won. If you lost, you lost."

She doesn't date or go to parties, staying away from anything that could get her into trouble. For her, boxing is priority No. 1.

"She's a complete fighter," said Crutchfield, who has been training Shields since she came into the gym with her father for the first time. "Offense, defense, counterpunching, everything. She's a student of boxing, and she watches all the old-timers like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson."

To describe Shields' style as aggressive would be an understatement. She's patient, but once provoked she throws punches obsessively. In many of her fights, you can see her fight through opponent's punches, counterpunching with fury until her opponent backs down.

"She doesn't ever want to lose a fight," Crutchfield said. "She has speed and she has power. Those are her greatest assets. The only thing I see her really needing to work on is her conditioning. Other than that, I think she's on a whole different level than her competitors."

Shields put those assets on display in April at the Women's Elite Continental Championships in Cornwall, Ontario. Competing in the 75 kg (165-pound) weight classification, she toppled three-time defending champ Mary Spencer of Canada, nearly doubling her opponent's score in a 27-14 victory.

Now Shields needs only a respectable finish at the Women's World Boxing Championships May 9-20 in Qinhuangdao, China, to qualify for the Olympics. But she's not taking anything for granted.

"Talent only gets you so far," she said. "I think it's going to be a great experience. I always want to fight against the best. When I get in the ring, I'm going to figure out how to win."

Crutchfield, a former boxer, has plenty of faith in his young boxer.

"She has a really good shot," he said. "She has a will to win, and a will to look good and win, and I haven't seen anything like that in a long time. Seeing her fighting is like seeing me fighting. I just want to jump in there.

"She's a delightful person. She laughs a lot, and you wouldn't even think that would be the same person when you watch her fight. She's grown tremendously from when she was 11, when I first started training her, to now. She's starting to mature."

Shields finds refuge in the ring. In a tough city, in a rundown neighborhood, coming from a home that hasn't always been easy, Shields is most comfortable between the ropes. It's a place where she's in control.

"Sometimes it's like all your problems go away," she said. "It's just time to take care of business once you get in there. I like that. Once you get in there, you've got to go the extra mile."

If she can go the extra mile at her event in China, she'll be an Olympian. From there she'll hope to turn a golden opportunity into an opportunity for gold.