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Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields takes a bite of her new gold medal while on stage at Bishop International Airport in Flint, Mich., Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. Chuck Johnson for The Undefeated

Claressa Shields is still fighting for Flint

She says Flint, Michigan, pride was the inspiration for every punch she threw in Rio de Janeiro

There was a time when it paid — and paid handsomely — to live and work in the birthplace of the world’s largest automaker, Flint, Michigan. For generations of families, General Motors wasn’t just a brand name. It was Flint’s economic engine.

Buick. AC Spark Plug. Chevrolet. Fisher Body. If you had a high school diploma and had turned 18 years old, a rite of passage to adult independence in Flint was to get a good-paying job on a GM assembly line, buy a house, start a family and, ideally at least, live happily ever after.

That was the proud and prosperous Flint I knew when I came here in 1975, a 21-year-old Detroit native fresh out of Michigan State University, eager to make my mark as a Flint Journal sportswriter. Contrast that Flint with the downtrodden but still proud city that welcomed home 21-year-old favorite daughter Claressa Shields last week, just back from Rio de Janeiro, where she dominated the competition to become the first two-time Olympic gold medalist, male or female, in U.S. amateur boxing history.

At a time when Flint has been in the national headlines for all the wrong reasons, Shields’ historic achievement on the world stage has the city’s leaders singing her praise.

“She has represented us and exemplified what it means to be a true Flintstone,” said Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who was among the packed crowd of dignitaries, friends, family and fans who greeted Shields upon her arrival at Bishop International Airport.

“People have looked at us because of the challenges and conditions we face, but we’ve been telling them there are some good people coming out of Flint, and Claressa is one,’’ Weaver said. “She has been such an example for our young people by showing what faith, determination, hard work and belief in yourself can get you. She has shown us that you can overcome whatever is put in front of you, just like we’re going to do here in Flint.”

Flint is on the ropes

 

To use a boxing metaphor, Flint is on the ropes. The economy is dragging as local GM jobs have nosedived to about 7,200 from a 1978 high of 80,000. During that span, Flint’s population has fallen to 90,000 from 200,000, a mass exodus brought about by plant closings, lost jobs, shrinking wages, flattened home prices and neighborhood decay.

With a racial makeup of 57 percent African-Americans and 37 percent whites, this working-class town was already reeling with 42 percent of the population living in poverty compared with 17 percent for the rest of the state. But then came the biggest punch to the gut.

Adding to the hardships residents were already facing, state government officials decided in April 2014 to temporarily switch Flint’s water source from the Detroit River to the Flint River in a cost-saving move but failed to ensure the necessary steps were taken to filter the water. That neglectful decision resulted in a lead-poisoned Flint water system.

For months, authorities failed to heed continuous complaints from citizens that the water was discolored, had a distinct foul taste and smell, and was unsuitable to bathe in, much less to drink.

The water tower at the Flint Water Plant in Flint, Michigan, looms large over the city March 4, 2016 nearly 2 years after the start of the city'

The water tower at the Flint Water Plant in Flint, Michigan, looms large over the city March 4, nearly two years after the start of the city’s water crisis.

GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

It wasn’t until October 2015 that officials reluctantly acknowledged something indeed was wrong with the water being piped into Flint homes. Only then was a public health emergency declared and Republican governor Rick Snyder gave the go-ahead for Flint to resume receiving water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

By then, GM had already found an alternate water source for its Flint Engine Operations plant because the lead-infested water had been corroding machinery.

For almost a year now, Flint residents have been forced to use bottled water as an alternative to the faucet, amid lingering concerns that those exposed to the tainted water, particularly children, will face health problems for years to come.

With all that bleakness, it’s easy to understand why Flint is in need of a hero. In this case, a SHE-ro named Claressa Shields.

In response to the water crisis, truckloads of bottled water have been donated to Flint residents by people all over the country. The state’s top business leaders and philanthropic community are sharing ideas on the best ways to invest in revitalizing Flint’s neighborhoods and downtown business district. The governor, whose administration dropped the ball to create the water mess, is now politically on board. He’s aware his legacy is tied to doing everything in his power to undo the damage and uplift the people of Flint.

Some progress is being made. New water fixtures are in Flint schools and additional nurses have been hired to care for the children. Still, there’s much more to do if the city is going to recover from four decades of GM downsizing and widespread governmental neglect.

Attracting new business, diversifying the market and creating more living-wage jobs are priorities No. 1, 2 and 3.

Nicknamed “T-Rex,” Shields the hard-hitting, fast-handed, fleet-footed boxer out of Berston Field House, an aging rec center on the north side of Flint, once wondered if she would ever escape her impoverished existence.

But last week Shields came back home to the adoration of her city. Wearing red, white and blue Team USA warmups, Shields took the stage at an airport welcoming reception to cheering, flag-waving and fans chanting her name.

“Thank you for coming, and let’s all come together and beat this water crisis and let’s beat whatever else the city has to beat,’’ she said, embracing her role as Flint’s anointed No. 1 cheerleader.

“The only way we’re going to do that is come together as a community. It takes a village to raise a child,” Shields said. “I wasn’t just raised by my mom. I was raised by my grandmother. I was raised by [my former trainer] Jason Crutchfield. I was raised by my Aunt Mickey. A lot of people had something to do with me coming up. The people at the Olympic training center. My little sister Brianna, my little brother Peanut, my big brother Artis. Everybody had an impact on what I became today. It wasn’t just one person that made me this great individual. It was all you people that had faith in me.”

Shields said Flint pride was the inspiration for every punch she threw in Rio.

“I carried all of y’all in my spirit,” she said. “Thank you for all the Facebook messages, Instagram messages, the Snapchats. I stayed on my social media. After every fight, there was always someone saying something to me that was motivating me and pushing me to keep fighting harder. I just remember when I was fighting my last fight, I wanted to knock her out so bad for y’all. I tried.”

After signing autographs and posing with fans for pictures, Shields left the airport and hopped into a black stretch limousine emblazoned on both sides with white letters that read “Congratulations Claressa Shields Just a Kid from Flint.”

Alanah Jankowiak, 7, of Flint, Mich., holds a photo of Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields with her family members while waiting to greet her at Bishop International Airport in Flint on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016, as she returns home from the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Alanah Jankowiak, 7, of Flint, Michigan, holds a photo of Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields with her family members while waiting to greet her at Bishop International Airport in Flint on Aug. 23 as she returned home from the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Ryan Garza/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP

To her hometown fans, Shields’ rise to international acclaim by winning the gold medal, not just in Rio but also four years ago as a 17-year-old in London, represents the never-give-up fight that Flint hopes to emulate for a comeback as a thriving city.

Nothing is going to come easy. It certainly didn’t for Shields.

A dream deferred

Bullied in school and molested as a preteen, Shields said, her journey to becoming a two-time Olympic gold medalist with a 77-1 record once seemed an impossible dream.

“I was one of those broken kids,’’ Shields said. “I felt like no matter what I did, my life was never going to get better. I felt that no matter how hard I worked, I was still stuck and still struggling.”

Once she found acceptance and encouragement in the boxing gym, Shields channeled her fury and physical skills into becoming one of the world’s top fighters.

But even after she won the gold in London, Shields grew frustrated after realizing the medal wouldn’t be the ticket from rags to riches that she expected. When the phone didn’t ring and the endorsement opportunities didn’t develop, Shields was left with no better option than to go for the gold again in Rio.

This time, the world is taking notice. Universal Pictures has purchased the movie rights to Shields’ inspirational story, told also in the highly acclaimed documentary T-Rex, currently airing on Netflix.

Powerade is featuring Shields in its Just a Kid advertising campaign. A sponsor of her airport homecoming, the sports drink company doled out free beverages and “Just a Kid from Flint” T-shirts to the crowd.

Shields also has endorsement deals with Zappos, an online shop for shoes and apparel, and the car maker Mini-Cooper. In January, she will make her big-screen debut in a feature film called Punch Me, based on a true story about a boxing promoter’s murder.

No one would blame Shields if she said “pinch me” as she digests the attention and options coming her way. She’s received congratulatory tweets from countless celebrities, from actor Samuel L. Jackson to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and has heard from several prominent boxing promoters, Oscar De La Hoya and Lou DiBella among them, about possibly continuing her career in the professional ring.

The chances she might go for a third gold medal in Tokyo remains a distinct possibility, given the relatively overshadowed status of professional women’s boxing.

“Professional women’s boxing is nowhere near on the same attention level as the Olympics are,” Shields said. “I get way more attention than any female boxer who is professional right now by me being an amateur.

“So the goal is to go professional but still have that same attention and same mainstream. Hopefully, if they have the rule changed that the women professionals can fight in the Olympics, I would go professional to fight on TV and make a bunch of money and then come back and defend my two gold medals in 2020.”

One thing for certain, Shields has become a familiar face in the public eye. Likewise, the world has taken notice of Flint’s troubles.

Flint has A great sports legacy

On a personal note, Flint was a great place for a sportswriter to cut his teeth. During my 12½ years there, I was struck by the city’s passion for high school sports and marveled at the number of great athletes Flint regularly churned out. Many went on to excel in college and the pros, so many that you might have wondered, even then, if something was in the water.

I was the first to write about an 11-year-old left-handed pitcher named Jim Abbott, who developed into a Golden Spikes winner at the University of Michigan. He later became a successful major league pitcher, highlighted by his no-hitter for the New York Yankees, despite the fact he was born without a right hand.

Carl Banks won two Super Bowl championships with the New York Giants. The bruising linebacker was another on the list of future pros who came through Flint on my watch. That roster includes, in no particular order, Andre Rison, Daryl Turner, Mark Ingram Sr., Courtney Hawkins, Lonnie Young, Jim Morrissey, Eugene Marve, Jeff Hamilton, Glen Rice, Trent Tucker, Jeff Grayer, Roy Marble, and who can forget Pamela and Paula McGee?

The McGee twins led Flint Northern to back-to-back Class A state basketball championships in 1978 and 1979 and were pillars of USC’s back-to-back NCAA women’s titles in 1983 and 1984. They were a terror in tandem – Paula, a 20-point scorer, and Pamela, a rebounding machine — but only Pamela was chosen to play for the USA in the 1984 Olympics. A double-standard of egregious magnitude. You just don’t separate the chemistry of twins for no apparent reason.

Providing one of the memorable moments at the Forum in Los Angeles, Pamela McGee stepped from the gold medal pedestal and headed directly to the stands to find her twin. With both in tears, Pamela took off her gold medal and placed it around Paula McGee’s neck, a spontaneous exchange of sibling love that tugged at the nation’s emotions.

By the time Tom Izzo coached my alma mater to the 2000 NCAA men’s basketball championship with a core group of players dubbed the Flintstones (Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell and Antonio Smith, before he graduated in 1999), I had been covering Major League Baseball for USA Today since 1988.

But you never forget your roots. I’ve maintained an affinity for Flint and its people. For a town its size, I still marvel at the city’s extraordinary output of great athletes.

That production line is still going with Brandon Carr (Dallas Cowboys), Thomas Rawls (Seattle Seahawks), Dan Skuta (Jacksonville Jaguars) and 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram Jr. (New Orleans Saints) all coming through the Flint area in recent years. Iowa State guard Monte Morris and Michigan State blue-chip recruit Miles Bridges are college basketball stars hailing from Flint.

“Because of the population, there might not be as many great ones coming through as there used to be, but the ones that do make it aren’t second-tier,” said sportswriter Eric Woodyard. “They’re making a big impact.”

Woodyard, a Flint native, is making his own mark in the community. His Flint Made Me movement was created as a positive campaign for homegrown talent to promote esteem in his hometown and it has been embraced by many of the athletes he’s covered.

He’s being helped in that mission by Shields, whom he’s written about since the early days of her boxing career. To the young people of Flint, especially the little girls, Shields’ success is an inspirational story that hits home.

“She is a true testament that anything is possible,” Woodyard said. “She made her own destiny through her faith in God, hard work and determination. That was truly her recipe for success.”

Flint’s recipe for a revival still isn’t clear. But Shields, at least symbolically, is seen as a main ingredient.

“Her success comes at a time when our community really benefits from having its spirits lifted by one of our own,’’ said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee. “We really need that right now. She’s not just from Flint. Flint is in her. The determination she demonstrated, the commitment to her craft and the willingness to work really hard, knowing the results would come, is something she exemplified in a way that’s extraordinary. She fought for Flint.”

GM’s impact on Flint’s economic bloodline has run its course. It’s only a GM town these days in the sense that GM stands for gold medalist.

“Flint needs some good news so every day, I carry Flint on my back,” Shields said. “When God grabs you by your ponytail and tells you to do something, you do it. He told me he wants me to give these kids hope. I got a little bit of hope. Look how far I ran with it.”

Chuck Johnson is an award-winning sportswriter who worked for the Flint Journal, USA Today and as sports information director for Detroit Public Schools. He was the National Association of Black Journalists' Sports Journalist of the Year in 2000 and was inducted into the Michigan State News Alumni Association Hall of Fame in 2008. His biggest accomplishment is being the proud father of his daughter Janay and son Julius, both Howard University graduates.