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Claressa Shields: Ushering in a New Age for Women’s Boxing?

by Kelsey Manning | University of Notre Dame

F Posted in: Sports and Culture P Posted on: August 9, 2012

Today, six female boxers made history as they competed in the first ever Olympic finals in the sport.

Today, 17-year old Claressa Shields defeated 33-year-old Nadezda Torlopova of Russia for the gold in the middleweight division.

Today, a high school junior from Flint, Michigan became the first American ever to take home a gold medal in women’s boxing.

“I’m still kind of shocked,” Shields said before the historic bout. “I’m thinking in my head, ‘Is it really true? Am I fighting for a gold medal tomorrow?’”

She was, and she did. Thanks to all the female fighters in these Olympic games, women’s boxing has made a massive leap toward being taken seriously as a sport. Greg Beacham of the Associated Press put the change in atmosphere and hype best.

“The debut women’s tournament stopped being just historic and started getting passionate in the quarterfinals Monday,” Beacham wrote.

While the charismatic teenager has fought her way to a gold medal in a historic year for her sport, Shields is just that – a teenager who was shocked to find herself at the Olympics, let alone fighting for gold. Out of the ring, Shields has clearly enjoyed her time in London, tweeting pictures with the likes of Missy Franklin and Kevin Durant throughout the games.

According to 2011 Notre Dame graduate and three-time club boxing champion Holly Hinz, Shields’ gold medal will be key in inspiring girls to participate in the sport.

“It’s great to see a typically male dominated sport gain some popularity among women, and I think this will only help it grow,” Hinz said. “It’s like when kids see these gymnasts do awesome things on TV and tell their parents they want to try that too. Hopefully this will inspire young girls to give the sport a try. Not to mention now there is the extra incentive that if you work hard enough and get good enough you might be able to compete in the Olympics.”

Notre Dame is one of the few universities across the country that offers women’s boxing as a club sport – a sport that has faced incredible struggles to make it to this point.

In 1904, women’s boxing made it to the Olympics solely as an exhibition sport, but the sport didn’t pick up any sort of popularity until the end of the 20th century. Veteran boxing coach Christy Halbert, now assistant coach for the U.S. women’s national team, told the Associated Press the biggest struggles in the sport’s growth were not only misconceptions about the effect of boxing on the female anatomy, but false cultural beliefs.

“I do recall it sort of seemed like an obsession over women’s anatomy and sexual characteristics,” Halbert said. “It was just speculation by people outside the medical field. When I presented medical evidence or research, I realized it wasn’t a medical issue. It was a cultural issue. These sorts of myths, believe it or not, still do exist. There are people in every country that still do believe this stuff.”

These myths and prejudices, Hinz said, are things she encountered on a regular basis.

“When I tell people I boxed, people always ask if it is real boxing is in fighting another person, rather than just a kickboxing class or something,” she said. “I know meeting a boxer is rare, but I doubt guys get asked if they do ‘real’ boxing when they say they are a boxer.”

Returning Notre Dame boxer, junior Colleen Kerins, also commented on the challenges of being a female boxer.

“I think one of the main challenges is overcoming the stigma the public has about women competing in boxing,” Kerins said. “Women’s boxing is just now going through the public acceptance process that most women’s sports went through 50 or so years ago. People think it is unsafe or that women are not capable of competing in the sport. I think coaches, trainers, and fellow boxers understand that the sport requires much more than physical strength, but also mental toughness, strategy, and determination, which the public does not necessarily recognize. It is also difficult to be in a sport where your training options are not as widely available as they would be with other more popular sports, but as the sport gains popularity this should become less of a problem.”

This historic day in the history of women’s boxing, capped with a gold medal for the charismatic and talented Shields, will go a long way for the sport according to Kerins.

“I think it’s well deserved,” Kerins said of the sport’s newfound Olympic status. “I’m a firm believer in equality between men’s and women’s sports and I think as time goes on the stigma that boxing is some savage sport only fit for men will diminish. I’m glad the women who have dedicated so much of their lives to the sport will now be able to compete in the most recognizable athletic competition in the world. 2012 is the 40th anniversary of Title IX, so it’s a fitting year for the sport to finally be recognized in the Olympics.”

Kerins said she hopes Claressa Shields and her tremendous accomplishment will inspire other young girls to give the sport a chance.

“Boxing is so empowering and can build girls’ confidence and strength unlike any other sport,” Kerins said. “I think it’s great that it’s gaining popularity and has the potential to enrich the lives of many girls.”

Kelsey Manning Kelsey Manning Kelsey Manning is an NGJ Managing Editor and a rising junior at the University of Notre Dame majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and minoring in Italian. You can follow her on Twitter @kelseyMmanning.

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