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Caryn Maconi

Development Writer, U.S. Olympic Committee

74 wins, 1 loss: Boxer Claressa Shields has big goals for Rio 2016

Claressa Shields is announced the winner of the women’s middleweight final bout at the London 2012 Olympic Games. 

Telling Claressa Shields she can’t do something is the best way to guarantee she will do it.

Shields is the first-ever female Olympic boxing champion, earning that title as a 17-year-old when the sport debuted for women at the London 2012 Games.

A native of Flint, Michigan, Shields had her first taste of boxing at age 11. Speaking with her dad after he was released from seven years in prison, she asked what he was passionate about before his sentence.

He talked about boxing. He talked about the legendary Muhammad Ali, and how Ali’s daughter Laila went on to become a professional boxer herself.

“He would talk about how Muhammad Ali had sons, but it was his daughter Laila who took after him,” Shields remembered. “And when he said that, I thought he was telling me he wanted me to take after him, since my dad used to be a boxer also.”

But when Shields asked him the next day to be signed up for boxing classes, his reaction wasn’t quite what she’d expected.

“He said no,” Shields said. “He said, ‘You’re too pretty to box,’ and that boxing was a man’s sport. I said, ‘That’s the dumbest reason you could ever give me.’

I went to the gym about five days later, and my dad signed me up.”

So there she was – an 11-year-old girl, practicing alongside the boys. Refusing to let them treat her any differently. Proving the doubters wrong.

Shields didn’t have an easy path to athletic success. Her mother struggled with drug and alcohol abuse throughout her childhood, and contact with her father was on-and-off. Often, she was unsure where her next meal would come from – or whether or not she would have a bed to sleep in from night to night.

Boxing was her outlet. A space for her to feel empowered.

“It was this atmosphere I had never encountered before,” Shields said. “From day one when my coach started teaching me, I was attentive, I listened, I was learning. He always pushed me past my limits – I thought my arms were going to fall off.”

As Shields got stronger and started climbing the ranks to national-level competition, boxing became a pathway to a brighter future.

She started to understand her potential when at 15, she boxed against the world No. 2 in a heavier weight class – and won.

“There was a 20-pound weight difference. She was taller than me, her arms were bigger than mine,” Shields said. “I thought, for her to be No. 2 in the world, I’ve got to be No. 1. That was when I knew I could be an Olympic gold medalist at age 17.”

With here eye on the Olympic Games, Shields moved in with her trainer and his family – a change that added some stability to her life outside the gym. Then in the home stretch before London, she was invited out to Colorado Springs to hone her skills at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

The London Games were a huge success. Shields went undefeated throughout the tournament, winning decisively against Russia’s Nadezda Torlopova in the gold-medal bout.

And suddenly, she had made history.

“I gave up a lot of my childhood for boxing, sacrificed being with my family,” Shields said. “I put in all that hard work and all that time, so to actually come out and accomplish my dream was something huge to me. I always wanted to be the first woman to win a gold medal.”

She was a senior at Flint Northwestern High School at the time of her Olympic success – and later that year, she became the first member of her family to graduate from high school.

Shields’ career record is now a phenomenal 74-1, her lone loss coming at the 2012 World Championships before the London Games.

In Rio, she has the chance to become the first-ever back-to-back Olympic boxing champion for the United States – male or female.

“Everyone was telling me after London that Rio was going to be harder, but I just haven’t seen it yet,” Shields said. “I’ve been really focused. I’ve been training, and I’ve been able to glide through these tournaments.”

For the past year, Shields has been back at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center. There, she said, the environment is all about sport performance.

“At the Olympic Training Center, I’m a priority,” Shields said. “They cook every day – breakfast, lunch and dinner. If I have any injuries, in two minutes I can get over to sports med. There’s a doctor there, a masseuse there. They make sure you have the best medicine, your body’s not sore, and you’re not overtraining. All I have to worry about is boxing, training and sleeping.”

Should she win gold in Rio, Shields hopes she can manage what she couldn’t quite after London – giving her family the opportunity to move out of Flint. She thought she would end up with numerous sponsorships and endorsements after her historic win, but most of those only came her way recently in the lead-up to Rio.

With more exposure now and a second Olympic appearance around the corner, she takes her position as a role model seriously.

“I think I set an example for the younger kids in Flint that look up to me, and kids from all over,” Shields said. “I just let them know that even though you come from a bad background, look how far you can actually go. Don’t be afraid to be different – everybody’s not going to agree with what you’re doing.

To this day, I have an Olympic gold medal, two world championships and all types of international wins – and there are still people in this world who say I box well, but women shouldn’t be in the ring. There’s always going to be someone, but you have to block that out. Whatever you put your full effort and passion into; it’s going to work out. And when you love what you’re doing, the job is easy.”

The women’s middleweight competition, in which Shields is the defending Olympic champion, will begin August 14 at Riocentro – Pavilion 6 in Barra Olympic Park.

“Anything can happen”: Casey Eichfeld to chase two Olympic medals while Devin McEwan lives out father’s legacy

Casey Eichfeld (left) and Devin McEwan won the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials for canoe slalom doubles in May in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Entering the final phase of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials for Canoe/Kayak in May, Casey Eichfeld already knew he had a spot on Team USA.

Eichfeld had punched his ticket to Rio – what will be his third Olympic Games – in the men’s single canoe at the first phase of Trials in April.

Still, he wouldn’t be satisfied unless his longtime friend and doubles canoe partner, Devin McEwan, could come along too.

“I was already assured a spot for C-1, but I really wanted to bring Devin to the Games with me,” Eichfeld said. “I wanted to share that experience with him. It is really something to be able to share such an intense experience with someone you have known for most of your life.”

At May’s Trials for C-2 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Eichfeld and McEwan finished first. Still, they had to wait for a decision from the International Canoe Federation regarding which countries would receive the remaining quota spots.

That decision ultimately came 15 days later, at the conclusion of the European Championships – and it was good news for the Americans.

“Admittedly, the wait was a little agonizing,” Eichfeld said. “We had been given some verbal assurances that it would work out, but we all know that verbal isn’t binding. We had to wait until we received the official confirmation. Now I can breathe.”

With the C-2 qualification, Eichfeld will become the first U.S. canoeist in history to compete in two disciplines at a single Olympic Games.

“This is my third Olympics, and I am very hungry for medals,” Eichfeld said. “We will see what happens, but we know where the goal is, and we will do our best to make it happen.”

The call to Team USA is particularly meaningful for Devin McEwan, whose father Jamie McEwan was a two-time U.S. Olympian in 1972 and 1992. Jamie won a bronze medal in singles canoe at the 1972 Games.

Devin grew up surrounded by his father’s passion for whitewater, getting his first taste of the sport from the bow of Jamie’s doubles canoe at age 6.

“I’m not sure it was my dad’s Olympic history per se that inspired me to compete, but rather his abiding and contagious love for the sport,” Devin McEwan said. “So much so that his success in international competition seemed almost incidental.”

After competing in doubles with his son throughout the 2000s, Jamie was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2009 and passed away in 2014.

“My dad was my hero both on and off the river, but he was also an amazing C-2 partner, traveling companion and friend,” Devin McEwan said. “Being on the 2001 National Team with him was quite possibly the best experience of my life. And these days, it’s when I’m on the river that I feel closest to my dad.”

Today, internationally competitive U.S. canoe and kayak athletes benefit from an endowment fund named in honor of Jamie McEwan.

That fund, established by the McEwans’ family friend Mike Keiser shortly after Jamie’s passing, helps to cover some of the costs athletes face as they train and race around the world.

“We compete in an amazing sport, but it is an amazing sport that doesn’t have much visibility,” Eichfeld said. “We pay 90 percent of our own way. Expenses include buying and maintaining boats, paddles and gear, in addition to travel, room and board.”

And for a sport like canoeing, traveling isn’t as simple as packing a carry-on. Shipping fees for boats, which come along on every trip, add up quickly.

“Major competition always takes place internationally, so airfare and boat travel fees are very common for us,” Eichfeld said.

The Jamie McEwan Canoe and Kayak Endowment will pay out in perpetuity, helping Team USA hopefuls offset these expenses for years to come.

For Devin McEwan and Eichfeld, though, all focus is on August 2016. McEwan has the chance to share his father’s title as Olympic medalist, while Eichfeld could bring home an unprecedented two medals in canoe for Team USA.

The duo has not placed higher than 12th on the world cup circuit during this Olympic cycle. Still, they took home gold at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games and have won the U.S. National Team Trials for the past three years.

“The amazing thing about competing in high-level sport is that anything can happen, and I feel like there is no better example of that than the Olympics,” Eichfeld said. “We are racing for the podium, but I think that is instinct for us as athletes – we don’t get in a start gate without our eyes on gold.”

McEwan and Eichfeld compete in the preliminaries from August 7-8 at the Whitewater Stadium in Deodoro Olympic Park.

William E. Simon Olympic Endowment gives Team USA hopefuls an edge

Swimmer Giles Smith and wrestler Victoria Anthony are two of the 12 U.S. athletes benefitting from the William E. Simon Olympic Endowment in 2016.

U.S. Olympic swimming hopeful Giles Smith consumes 4,000-5,000 calories per day.

That’s what it takes to be a elite-level sprinter, contending with the likes of Michael Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly. Between three and four-a-day training sessions, proper fueling is extremely important.

All those calories, however, can add up to a pretty steep grocery bill.

That’s one reason Smith is grateful to be a recipient of the 2016 William E. Simon Olympic Endowment for the Support of Athletes. The endowment, established in 1998 and named after the former U.S. Olympic Committee president, offers financial aid to a select group of athletes each year.

Since the grant’s inception, more than $920,000 has been awarded by the USOC to nearly 200 athletes. Its aim is to offset training expenses, allowing athletes to focus more fully on chasing their Olympic and Paralympic dreams.

Smith is one of 12 Team USA hopefuls selected to receive support from the Simon Endowment in 2016. He plans to use the funding to aid in both nutrition and recovery.

“The grant allows me to be a little bit more consistent with putting quality food in my body, and really taking care of myself outside of the pool,” Smith said. “Being able to afford massages when I need them, chiropractor visits – those things really help in terms of recovery.”

The funding also offsets some of the expenses Smith faces when traveling for training camps and international competitions.

“When you’re on the road with hotels and airfare, it adds up. And eating when you’re on the road – you’ve got to eat well while you’re competing,” Smith said. “I’m very thankful to have the grant to be able to cover some of those costs.”

Smith won gold in the 100m butterfly at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto last summer. Since then, he’s had the flexibility to step away from a swim team coaching job – meaning hours on his feet in the sun after training – and commit fully to his athletic career.

Smith hopes to qualify for his first U.S. Olympic Team at the Trials for swimming in June, and he believes he has what it takes. Only the top two finishers in each event at Trials will punch their tickets to Rio.

“Obviously Michael Phelps swims my event, and he’s the best swimmer in the world, hands down,” Smith said. “And besides Michael, there are other guys who are great competitors. I think for me I’m just trying to swim my own perfect race, and if I do that, I believe I can get one of those spots.”

For U.S. freestyle wrestler Victoria Anthony, receiving the Simon Endowment means being able to focus more on training and work fewer hours at her retail job at Dick’s Sporting Goods.

“The Simon grant gives me the necessary support to increase the value of my training,” Anthony said. “It allows me to relax financially, with the knowledge that I can afford the things that truly aid in great training – organic food choices, massages, recovery tools and travel expenses.”

Anthony kicked off 2016 in winning fashion, taking the women’s 48kg title at the Dave Schultz Memorial in Colorado Springs in January. She narrowly missed making the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, finishing second at the Trials earlier this April.

The U.S. No. 2 is already looking ahead, though, with aims of making the team for the 2017 World Championships in Paris, France – and winning a world title once she gets there.

“In order to achieve that goal, I will compete in a handful of domestic and international tournaments along the way,” Anthony said. “My goal is less to win those as it is to figure out what is and isn’t working in my technique, fix it, and be prepared for the World Team Trials and the World Championships.”

But for Smith, Anthony, and the 10 other Simon Endowment recipients for 2016, winning medals and setting records isn’t all that drives them. Like most athletes of Team USA, they are motivated by something more.

“I want my story to inspire and encourage people to follow their dreams, regardless of being knocked down,” Anthony said. “I lost this year in the finals of the Olympic Trials, but I’ll be back better than ever because of it. I know my journey to the top will be one that others can pull encouragement from, in order to achieve whatever it is they are striving for.”

Smith has a similar mission.

“It’s really important to me to inspire minority kids,” Smith said. “I’m an African-American swimmer, and there are not many of us out there. There’s much more diversity on the pool deck than when I first started, but there’s a lot that can be done. If I can impact that in any way – by my performance or by talking to a kid after a race – that’s how you leave a legacy in a sport. You leave things better than they were when you were doing them.”

For the full press release announcing all 12 Simon Endowment recipients for 2016, click here.

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