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Off to college, Olympic boxing champ defies odds

Friday - 8/9/2013, 12:22am  ET

In this photo taken on July 23, 2013, Claressa Shields, left, spars at the Berston Field House in Flint, Mich. A year after winning the Olympic middleweight title in London, Shields is defying expectations once again. The first of her siblings to graduate from high school, she begins classes later this month at Olivet. She was awarded a full scholarship, and plans to study broadcast journalism and business at the small, private liberal arts school about 90 miles southwest of Flint. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

NANCY ARMOUR
AP National Writer

FLINT, Mich. (AP) -- At an ice-breaker during their orientation last month, the incoming freshmen at Olivet College were asked to tell their classmates two truths and a lie about themselves.

When it was Claressa Shields' turn, some of the students decided "winning gold at the London Olympics" certainly was the lie.

No, others said, the fib was that Shields is a boxer.

The truth? Hardly anyone would believe it. And winning an Olympic gold medal as a 17-year-old boxer is only the half of it.

"She has come so far from ... that little girl who didn't have a coat but still got up in wintertime and went to school. Who didn't have anything to eat and still made her way," said Mickey Rouse, who has become a mother figure to Shields and whose husband, Jason Crutchfield, coaches the Olympic champion. "That girl, who can forget her? That's remarkable."

A year after winning the Olympic middleweight title in London -- the only gold by a U.S. boxer, male or female -- Shields is defying expectations once again. Sidesteppng the cycle of poverty and crime that dragged down family members and resisting the temptations of newfound fame, Shields has done more than find an escape from her tough circumstances.

She's given herself options.

The first of her siblings to graduate from high school, she begins classes later this month at Olivet. She was awarded a full scholarship, and plans to study broadcast journalism and business at the small, private liberal arts school about 90 miles southwest of Flint.

"I think college is going to be fun," she said. "I wasn't too excited about college at first because I really didn't think that I wanted to go. The only thing I wanted to do is box. But in the end, as you get older, you learn things. You've got to have a Plan B and a Plan C."

She learned that the hard way after London.

Unlike Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas, Shields' gold medal didn't come with fame and fortune. Oh, sure, she made the rounds of dignitaries in Michigan, appeared on "The Colbert Report," walked the red carpet at "The BET Honors" in February and was a question on "Jeopardy." But Fortune 500 companies didn't come calling with endorsement deals. She wasn't asked to be a presenter on any of the major award shows, like Douglas and her Fierce Five teammates.

She wasn't even nominated for an ESPY.

"It's not hate toward Gabby Douglas. She did a great job. She went there and represented America," Shields said. "But I did the same thing."

Shields got a $25,000 bonus from the U.S. Olympic Committee, just as Phelps, Douglas and every other U.S. athlete who won a gold medal in London did. But aside from the occasional speaking engagement, most of her income now comes from her $2,000-per-month training stipend.

Shields blames the lack of attention on the fact that women's boxing isn't as popular in the United States as gymnastics or swimming. But Olympic champions need more than a gold medal to cash in, and her new agent and promoter Rick Mirigian insists it's all a matter of marketing the engaging Shields and her remarkable story.

He's already been in talks with several big companies, including Wonderful Pistachios, Beats by Dre and the Jordan Brand, and Mirigian said IMG was recently in Flint to film a documentary on Shields.

"We're really creating the foundation for her to have her chance at mainstream America," Mirigian said. "(The deals) won't be millions of dollars, but they'll absolutely be significant. Significant from an exposure standpoint and significant monetarily.

"Claressa is an untapped market for a lot of companies," Mirigian added. "She's an amazing story. Period. Just an amazing story."

Indeed, long before she was old enough to understand long-range plans or preparing for her future, Shields showed flashes of a resilience that is as powerful and unwavering as the blows she delivers with her fists.

She grew up on Flint's gritty East Side, which took the loss of the automotive industry harder than any other in "Vehicle City."

Buick City, the vast assembly complex that employed almost 30,000 people in its heyday and dominated the landscape, is little more than miles of barren concrete now. The neighborhoods surrounding it are pock-marked by abandoned homes, and those that are occupied look tired and rundown. The few businesses that have braved the fallout barricade themselves behind thick, black bars on windows and doors.

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