What if you became the first American woman to win Olympic gold for boxing?
The boxer is one of the great poetic embodiments of the American Dream, like the frontiersman or the hip-hop mogul. Born with nothing, the boxer (whether fictional like Rocky Balboa or real like Joe Frazier, or a bit of both like Mike Tyson) drags himself out of poverty and into redemption, which, in America, means into success. Belts are won, fame is secured, the boxer is saved.
And then what?
Ask Claressa Shields and she'll tell you that life goes on even after your hand is raised, that your struggles are just beginning, that boxing your way out of lousy circumstances is the easy part. Managing success is the real fight. The Flint, Mich., native was just 17 when she fought at the Summer Olympics in London in 2012, the first year women's boxing was part of the games. Which means she was making history at an age when most of us were still stumbling our way through high school. Upon returning to the Midwest she then had to figure out how to navigate the labyrinth of potential endorsements, local fame, and dashed commercial hopes that sudden amateur athletic success brings. And she was doing all of this while being followed around by a documentary film crew.
Drea Cooper, one of the directors of that documentary, T-Rex, says it was this determination, both in the ring and out of it, that convinced him and his shooting partner, Zackary Canepari, to make Claressa the subject of their first feature.
"We were developing a film about teen athletes, and we were interested in looking at this new era of youth sports, where sports have become live-or-die for a lot of kids," Cooper says. "When we met Claressa back before the Olympic trials, the stakes couldn't have been higher. Here was this girl who had just turned 17, living in really hard conditions, trying to become one of the first women to ever fight in the Olympics. But she was so composed and so focused. Within a day of meeting her we decided to make the movie."
Claressa's tale of salvation through boxing is classic and cautionary, though no one willing to get punched in the face for a living will heed the warning. Faced with unyielding poverty on one hand and the fantasy of sudden financial abundance on the other, you couldn't fault her for collapsing under the pressure. Somehow, though, even as those around her were losing their minds, Claressa, still not old enough to vote or buy a beer, managed to keep her wits about her.
"The dream of Olympic success is huge but there are so many steps, so many details, to make that success more than just a medal," Canepari says. "Claressa didn't really have any idea how to make that happen. Who does? But even when things got complicated and everyone else around her was so concerned about money and endorsements, she just kept doing what she did: boxing. Like always, she refused to listen to what anyone said. She just kept following her dreams."
Documentary Competition, World Premiere
T-Rex Friday, March 13, 9:15pm, Stateside Saturday, March 14, 9:15pm, Rollins Wednesday, March 18, 9pm, Violet Crown