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 doesn’t 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. That’s 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 there’s 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 woman’s place is wherever she decides to make it.
The Olympics provides a rare chance for athletes to show there’s much more to women’s 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 women’s boxing isn’t 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. men’s team did in 2008. Fans have welcomed women’s 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 women’s game, there’s 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 country’s 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 father’s signature on a form.
“He said, ‘No, it’s a man’s sport,’ and that drove me crazy,” she said. “I cried for two days and he changed his mind.
“Boxing made me feel accepted; no asked me, ‘Why you hitting the bag like a boy?’ Instead of putting my energy into something destructive, boxing helped me control my anger.”
At Berston Gym, and in the home of her coach Jason Crutchfield and his family, she stays out of the trouble that plagues her neighborhood.
“I’ve lost so many friends. Mostly gun violence,” she said. “Every summer when I go to a boxing tournament, I feel bad because I can’t go to their funerals. Another friend died since I’ve been away. I know he got shot.”
She’s been receiving encouraging messages from her older brother, who is in prison until 2013, she said.
“When I was little he used to punch me whenever I cried,” she said.
And her father has called to motivate her.
“He said, ‘Remember when we went to the store to get your bicycle and the girl took your bicycle but you were too little to fight her?’
“I’m like, ‘No.’
“And he said, ‘Well, now you’re big enough to beat her so go get your bicycle. Sometimes he uses the hamburger one — the girl who took my hamburger at McDonald’s. They are made-up stories. Don’t nobody take nothing from me!”
Her USA Boxing cornerwoman, Gloria Peek, has been coaching boxers for 34 years, since before there were women in the sport.
“You coach them as men and women — they are boxers,” Peek said. “Claressa is still a baby in the sport. I see her as a throwback to those days when our fighters had nothing but dog in them.”
Mangold’s idol was Brett Favre.
“Most girls have the princess bedroom but my whole room was Green Bay Packers — the bedspread, the cheese head, the Brett poster,” she said. “Now I like telling people Brett had his hands under my brother’s butt.”
Like her big brother, she played football for Archbishop Alter High School in Dayton, Ohio. She was 5-8 and weighed more than 300 pounds. Football actually helped her fit in.
“You have to put up with the usual hazing, but what I got out of it was 40 brothers,” she said. “God help anyone who would tease me around the team. You form a bond. You wonder why old men reminisce. When I go back, I always call the boys.
“The girls wouldn’t dare say anything because they knew I could kill them.”
Mangold, who is hilarious, was voted onto her school’s homecoming court.
“I didn’t have the usual high school experience most large women have, that makes them insecure or unhappy,” she said. “I had lots of friends.”
She fell out of love with football when she realized it was a dead end. She tried weightlifting and her athleticism and explosiveness enabled her to excel quickly. Her personal best is a combined 562.2 pounds in the snatch and clean and jerk.
Mangold, 22, now lives in the laundry room of her training partner and works part-time at a barbecue joint. Last year, she starred in an MTV documentary I’m the Big Girl. She wants to tell people not to get defeated by body image.
“I want to convey be happy with yourself,” she said. “I don’t think anyone should be my size. It’s weird because my sister is a 5-6 marathoner.”
As for weightlifting, watch and see the beauty of it.
“We don’t need to sell it up and make it ladylike,” she said. “I’m not going to jump onto the platform in a bikini. Nobody would want to see that.”
For Kayla Harrison, winning the first Olympic gold medal in judo for the United States was validation of her plan to reinvent herself.
“I know there’s nothing in my life that will be harder than being a victim of sexual abuse,” she said. “And I want little girls and boys to know it’s not OK, but it is OK to talk about it.”
Harrison said she was abused and “brainwashed” by her first judo coach until she was 16.
“I was really young,” she said. “I thought my world revolved around him. He said he loved me and this was our secret. My whole life was a lie, and during those years I was an emotional wreck.”
The coach was a friend of the family. When she told her mother, he was arrested and is currently serving a 10-year sentence.
Harrison’s mom sent her to Boston to live and train with coach Jimmy Pedro and his father.
She said the Penn State scandal has shown that sexual abuse is a huge taboo. She wants to increase awareness and dialogue. She wants sport governing bodies to provide guidance on coach-athlete relationships.
Today, she’s engaged to a firefighter — a career she plans to pursue — and living in Marblehead, Mass.
“I look back and feel sad for that girl, who didn’t know how to escape,” she said. “Judo gave me a path to follow.”