AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. — Claressa Shields sullenly stood against the wall, sticking out her lower lip and hanging her head. When asked what was bugging her, she gave monosyllabic answers and fiddled with the white tape on her fists.
“Cheer up! Come on, let’s go!” said Jason Crutchfield, her coach and trainer. “This is the Olympic trials! You won! You’re fighting in the finals! You get a day off! Cheer up!”
Under his breath moments later, Crutchfield offered commentary: “Teenagers, man.”
Shields is the sensation of the first U.S. women’s boxing team trials, tearing up the middleweight division with three consecutive victories. The youngest boxer in the field, with less than a year of big-time experience, is one fight away from a trip to China for the world championships and a shot at Olympic qualification in May.
The Flint, Mich., product is also staying up too late on her phone, talking trash with rivals at fast-food restaurants, and pouting because the judges’ scores weren’t one-sided enough in her latest win.
You know, generally behaving like a 16-year-old.
“She gets real emotional,” Crutchfield said. “If she doesn’t perform well, she’s down in the dumps. She gets mad about other stuff. It’s been hell for me, but I think she’s going to be all right.”
Shields moved to the brink of the world championships with a 23-15 victory Thursday night over Tika Hemingway, a physical Pittsburgh fighter who probably is Shields’ toughest remaining obstacle in the double-elimination tournament.
Shields, who turns 17 on St. Patrick’s Day, could win the trials tonight. If she finishes in the top eight in China to earn an Olympic berth, she’ll be the latest teen sensation hoping to capture the nation’s attention at the Olympics.
This is no Mary Lou Retton, however.
She’s a 165-pound dynamo with vicious power, impressive speed and a quick sense of humor paired with a chip on her shoulder. She claimed her first two opponents – a five-time national champion and a former world champion – were “bums,” and she’s still frustrated she hasn’t been able to stop anybody this week, a rare achievement in top-level amateur boxing.
“We’ll see a better person Saturday with a lot better attitude,” Crutchfield said. “She’s a great kid.”
Crutchfield has been on a five-year “roller-coaster ride” with the fighter he affectionately calls “Ress.”
Shields’ father escorted her to the famed Berston Field House in Flint five years ago, hoping to keep his daughter off the path that landed him in prison. Tired of basketball, she became interested in boxing from her father’s stories about Laila Ali’s prowess.
Crutchfield didn’t immediately embrace coaching women. He figured he would coach a champion someday, but never expected it to be a teenage girl.
“My God, you’ve got to deal with the boys, you’ve got to deal with the ups and downs,” Crutchfield said. “It’s been hell for me. It has.”