LONDON -- She'd pictured this in her mind for years, and dreamed about it only the night before. But when the moment finally arrived for Claressa Shields, the 17-year-old from Flint, Mich., who won the first-ever Olympic gold medal for the U.S. in women's boxing Thursday, she didn't even want to peek.
"I tried not to look at it while I was up there," she said, laughing at her own nervous joy during the medal ceremony. "But I was like, 'Oh, here it comes! I can't believe this medal is in front of me right now!' And then when they put it on me, I guess I went crazy."
Well, just a little bit. Shields did a dance on the podium, lifted the gold medal up in front of her face and leaned back laughing so hard her whole body was shaking.
"I thought I was gonna have a seizure and pass out," said Shields, who even had the vanquished silver medalist, Nadezda Torlopova, a 33-year-old Russian plucked straight out of central casting, laughing right along with her.
They were howling, too, over in Section 303, where Shields' coach, Jason Crutchfield, and Eddie Kendall, one of the trainers from the F.W.C. Berston Field House in Flint, stood amid a sea of Irish flags still celebrating a gold-medal triumph for Katie Taylor, one of the day's other big Olympic stars.
As they waited for the ceremony, Shields' coaches were high-fiving their newfound Irish friends and posing for photographs. Kendall's voice was all but gone after three days of screaming
"I was just so anxious and ready for this moment," Crutchfield said later, as he waited outside the arena for Shields to finally emerge. "I just wanted to prove that we could do it. I wanted to prove to everybody that we could do it."
They did it, all right. And the only hard part now is figuring just what that means. In the whirlwind of emotions that swept up Shields immediately after Thursday's triumph, it was hard to process.
"I know I'm about to have a lot of publicity," said Shields, who was scheduled to start making the rounds this morning with an appearance on NBC's "Today" show. "I might go in the history books. People will want to look at me as inspiration. I might have 10,000 followers when I get back on Twitter. I'm gonna be able to help my family out."
"And then I've got a gold medal that I can wear every day," Shields added with a big grin. "And it's mine."
So was all the pain and sacrifice that went into this, of course. And just how much, only Shields can really say. But probably her most poignant comments Thursday came when she was asked what was on her mind as the national anthem played and the U.S. flag was raised.
"I was thinking, you know, God, he knows my heart," she said. "This is something I wanted for a long time, even when I felt that boxing wasn't going right, my life wasn't going right."
How much pain and sacrifice went into this?
"A lot," Crutchfield said, sighing. "Personal problems, family issues. She's been up and down. We both have. But we made it through."
For that, Shields has Crutchfield to thank, as much as anyone. Her father was in jail for most of her early childhood, and she said in a recent interview with Essence magazine that she was the victim of sexual abuse by a family acquaintance as a young child. She talked Thursday about how she "went without a lot of meals growing up." And she recalled all those training runs she'd make through the decaying streets of her hometown, "where I'd see all these crackheads and drug addicts and I just didn't want to be like them -- I wanted to have a good life."
Her family life was full of upheaval as a teenager, too, as she bounced from home to home around Flint's north end. In the months leading up the Olympics, she was living with Crutchfield and his family in Mount Morris. And really, he has been a second father for years, picking her up for morning workouts, and talking on the phone late at night whenever a crisis arose.
"Any kind of confusion -- family stuff, in the gym, whatever -- I just pulled her out," said Crutchfield, who worked days in construction for a cable company and at night training a couple dozen young boxers in the basement gym at Berston. "I just kept her focused."
Here in London, it showed, as Shields powered through the tournament while others tumbled around her. Two of the top middleweight contenders, Great Britain's Savannah Marshall and Canada's Mary Spender, both lost their opening bouts. The other two American women failed to reach the finals in their weight classes. And the U.S. men's team made history for its futility here in London, failing to win a medal for the first time at an Olympics.
But there was Shields on Thursday morning, the youngest U.S. Olympic boxer in 40 years, talking via Skype with Crutchfield and his mentor Lissus Walker -- "her granddaddy in boxing," Crutchfield said -- whose name is on the gym back home in Flint. They talked about the opponent, a slow-footed, but powerful, righty who'd won bronze at May's world championships. They talked about the fight strategy, and all the adjustments Shields needed to make. And then Walker asked her a simple question, 'Can you do it?'
Her reply: "Yes, Mr. Walker."
Yes, indeed. After a first-period stalemate, Shields started to attack, throwing combinations with speed that Torlopova simply couldn't match.
"After the second round, I knew that was it," the Russian admitted later.
So did Shields, who turned and smiled at her coach in the stands after the final bell, thrusting her hands in the air even before the 19-12 final score was announced.
What's next? Well, that's a question without an answer at the moment.
"I haven't been able to think past today," Shields laughed, adding "I'm just gonna go wherever the wind blows me."
But there are serious decisions to be made. She'll return home to finish high school at Flint Northwestern, and both Shields and her coach insists she'll go to college.
But will she remain an amateur boxer or turn pro?
"We talked about it before, and I told her, we need to test the market for women and see what's out there for you if you win a gold medal," Crutchfield said. "You might (be able to) change female boxing. And if you can, you need to do it."
But only if the money is right, he added, and there's no guarantee of that, as women's pro boxing has yet to take hold in the U.S. aside from novelty acts like Laila Ali or Christy Martin. Shields might be better served to stay in the amateur ranks through Rio in 2016, provided USA Boxing can get its act together and up the ante -- a $1000 monthly stipend won't do, obviously -- for a girl who literally changed the face of her sport this week.
Regardless, life is about to change. Crutchfield knows it -- "That's exactly why I'm here -- to make sure she makes the right decisions," he said -- and Shields does, too. Thursday afternoon, when I asked her if she's ready for what comes next, with everyone wanting a piece of her and her fame, I got the kind of reply you don't expect from a 17-year-old.
"Hey, I guess that comes with the territory," she told me. "But I'm still gonna be in control of my life.
"I ain't gonna say I'm prepared for it. But I'm not the type to bite my tongue. I'll tell 'em, 'Where were you at when I needed some money? Where were you when I needed some clothes?' You gotta recognize real. I recognize real."
And we all better recognize this now: Claressa Shields is the real deal. Pure gold.