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Every March, tens of thousands of people from around the globe flock to Austin, Texas, to learn and connect over panels, parties and tacos at South By Southwest's interactive, film and music conferences. America Tonight's SXDiaries Q&A series highlights interesting and inspiring figures at SXSW.
In 2012, Claressa Shields became the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in boxing. As highlighted in the new documentary “T-Rex,” Shields’ path to Olympic glory didn’t come easily – and she has another hard road ahead to the 2016 Games.
Shields, along with “T-Rex” director Zackary Canepari and producer Sue Jaye Johnson, spoke with America Tonight about her tough childhood, her issues with the black community and feeling overlooked as an Olympic gold medalist. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Shields: I was an angry child. [But] at 13, I got baptized and started going to church and it changed from there. I started boxing. Before I started boxing, I was in real dark place. I would sit in my room and – I didn’t have a bed, I had a couch – I leaned it up against the door. No one came to my room. My mom said, “Something is wrong with her. She doesn’t talk to anyone.”
As I got older, I learned life is going to get harder and as long as you pray to God, things are going to get better. From there, I was probably 14 or 15 when my coach, Jason, took me in. He basically did whatever a father had to do: He fed me, got me up to go running, took me back and forth to school and the gym. That’s how we started chasing our dreams to the Olympics.
You’ve been vocal about how disappointed you were from the lack of endorsements and financial opportunities after winning the gold medal. What was it like to not have as many doors opened for you as you expected?
Shields: At first, it was real discouraging. Everyone said something was going to happen. Maybe a month and a half after we got back, everyone was like, “Gabby Douglas got this” and “Gabby Douglas got that.” I didn’t know who Gabby Douglas was. I finally found out [and] I’m like, “She’s a gymnast and great at doing backflips and all that good stuff.” She’s the 41st person to win in that category, but the first African-American to do it. I was just like, “I’m the first person to do what I did, period, no matter what race.” There will never be another first. I thought I deserved more, but I had to throw it in the back and keep moving forward.
My life did get better after the Olympics, it didn’t get worse. I’m able to do some things for my family now. I’ve always had to learn how to budget. With my money, I’m like, “Save, save, save, and you spend this much per month, and this is your play money for this month.” I don’t dwell on the past. I’m looking forward to 2016. Hopefully they wake up! (laughs)
You're considered a role model for young African-Americans. Has that role evolved with everything that’s happened in the past year with the #BlackLivesMatter movement?
Shields: I’m just going to put it out there: I’m a black activist. I care about my race and I care about other races. I don’t like the fact that all these black men have to get shot down by these white cops. I just don’t appreciate that. I tell my little brother all the time to be careful. He’s 17 now, and I tell him, “When you get into it with the cops, you don’t talk back. You do what they say. As long as they’re not trying to do anything physical to you, just do what they say.” I’ve gotten pulled over at least twice. They’ve been nice to me and I’ve been nice to them. Some cops don’t know who I am.
Canepari: You told me you pulled out the gold medal to get out of a ticket.
Shields: Yes, that time I did, but that was in Flint! (laughs) In Flint, I get pulled over and the cops feel bad pulling me over. “That’s our golden girl, we’re not going to arrest her.” And actually, a lot of cops know me from when I lived with my mom, as they were coming to our house so much.
I didn’t leave Flint until I was 12, when I had my first fight in Columbus, Ohio. After that, I was traveling all the time and it gave me that broader view. But sometimes, when you’re in that dark place like Flint, you’re around so much negativity and you can't see the bigger picture. And everyone is stuck living on welfare and getting Social Security checks. Life is not about that, man. It’s some money and it’ll help you, but at the end of the day, it stops them and limits them. No one wants to get an education because someone working a minimum wage job gets the same as someone living on a Social Security check. They’re getting paid for doing nothing and having kids. There are a lot of things in the black community that are just messed up. I’m a black activist and I just try to inspire kids to do better and actually want to live a great life.
I’m just going to put it out there: I’m a black activist. I care about my race and I care about other races. I don’t like the fact all these black men have to get shot down by these white cops. I just don’t appreciate that. I tell my little brother all the time to be careful.
Johnson: [Female boxers] are breaking ground about what women and girls are allowed to do. In that, they’re all activists. Claressa, in particular, is an incredible figure for young women. She’s still trying to figure out how to deal with family and a dysfunctional community. Claressa has had every strike against her you could imagine and she won’t talk about it, because she wants to be defined by what she’s doing going forward. It’s a really important message for girls to hear. They are not victims of their circumstances. They can really take control of what they’re doing.
A significant part of your personal story involves your relationships with your parents and siblings. Where do you stand with those relationships?
Shields: It’s improved. My sister and me are too much alike, so we can’t be around each other for too long. I’m always there when she needs me and she calls me before every fight. Brianna is like my hype man. Sometime before a fight, I’m laid back and chill, but she’s cussing over the phone: “It’s time to go! Wake up!”
My little brother stays with me now. I just switched his school. He’s very smart, but it’s easy to get distracted and want to fit in with the crowd.
I’ve had a good relationship with my mom since I was about 16 or 17. She’s a different kind of mom than others. I can talk to her literally about anything. My dad moved to Arizona, but I see him more now than when he was in Flint. My dad is always continuously worried about me. That’s why I avoid him a lot. I can take care of myself.
In the film, there are moments with the family that seem really personal and raw. How sensitive was the family during this whole experience?
Canepari: From the beginning, no one was standoffish or not open about talking. Brianna is Brianna. She’s going to tell you what she thinks. She is the knee-jerk reaction queen. There’s no bullshit in Flint and no bullshit in Claressa’s family.
You’ve got a gold medal to defend at next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. What have you taken from the experience of the past few years that you can apply next year? What did you learn from the process of making a film?
Shields: I really learned that all white people are not bad. When you’re talking to other black people, they’re just like, “Hey, you better watch that film. You never know what they’re going to put in there.” But it wasn’t like that. So yeah, all white people are not bad. A lot of them do have genuine hearts and care about black communities, even though they’re not affected by it. Even though [Zack’s] white and I’m black, we have a lot in common. From looking at him, I was like, “Who is this little soft dude over here?” (laughs)But after hanging with them, you can talk to them about your personal life. I always did that. It always worked out.
Whether I go to college or not, I’m still going to be successful. If you really want something, you have to have a lot of determination, and I’ve known that since the jump. You’re going to have a few setbacks and have strange people come into your life, but it’s cool. I feel like if I had to fight the Olympics next month, I’d be ready. It isn’t about the physical assets. It’s all about the mental.