LONDON -- Claressa Shields punches and gets punched in the mouth, in the nose, in the ribs. Her heroes are Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. Her hangout is a basement gym. Her home is Flint, Mich., a city staggering under a perpetual 8-count.
Shields fights for the first U.S. boxing gold medal of the London Olympics on Thursday.
Kayla Harrison doesnt merely pin her opponents in the martial art of judo. She throws them to the mat, flings them over her shoulder, kicks their feet out from under them.
She almost quit the sport after years of sexual abuse by her youth club coach. Instead, she used judo to rebuild a fortress of self-esteem. She has become an outspoken advocate for victims and her gold medal from the London Games will give her a bigger platform.
Weightlifter Holley Mangold can clean and jerk 320 pounds off the ground and over her head. Thats close to her body weight of 340. She was an offensive lineman for her high school football team, following in the footsteps of brother Nick, center for the New York Jets. But theres no NFL for women, so she tried weightlifting and after just three years, she finished 10th in the Olympic superheavyweight class, despite a torn tendon in her right hand.
Shields, Mangold and Harrison are three strong women, strong enough to be Olympians, strong enough to knock out, flip and smash stereotypes.
It takes muscle of the mind as well. They had to possess sturdy imaginations to envision themselves doing unconventional things. Women in the voting booth, in outer space? Those were once as inconceivable as women running marathons.
A womans place is wherever she decides to make it.
The Olympics provides a rare chance for athletes to show theres much more to womens sports than tennis, golf, basketball and beach volleyball.
Mangold wanted to be a gymnast when she was a little girl, but my body had other plans.
Now she, Shields and Harrison are so strong they are reshaping notions of femininity.
Here are their stories:
Claressa Shields is barely 17 and to her womens boxing isnt a gender-bending anomaly making its Olympic debut. Boxing has been her passion since she was 11. The Flint Northwestern High senior may turn out to be the best American boxer in these Games. Certainly, she and teammate Marlen Esparza, bronze medalist in flyweight, already have won two more medals than the U.S. mens team did in 2008. Fans have welcomed womens boxing not gingerly but with ear-splitting enthusiasm especially Irish fans, who sing and chant for four-time world champ Katy Taylor as if they were at a soccer game. In the evolving womens game, theres lots of offense.
Shields stun-gun hands to the heads of lankier opponents enabled her to advance to the middleweight-title bout against a Chinese boxer.
Shields grew up in Flint, formerly Buick City and now one of the countrys capitals of unemployment and manufacturing obsolescence.
Shields started boxing because she thought it would please her father. Clarence Cannonball Shields, a pretty good amateur in his day, served seven years in prison for breaking and entering. When he got out, his daughter was 9. He told her how he had wasted years of his life. He lamented how none of his sons or nephews were boxers. He mentioned Laila Ali.
She went to the gym and began practicing but needed her fathers signature on a form.