U.S. Olympic boxer Claressa Shields is only 17 years old, but she's at the crest of a rather large wave that's preparing to rearrange the landscape of American boxing for years to come.
The 2012 Summer Games in London features women's boxing for the first time in the history of the Olympics. That's noteworthy all by itself. What makes Shields' rise to the top even more salient is that 2012 will be the first year that the U.S. men's boxing team has failed to medal.
The women's team has already earned one medal, as Marlen Esparza won the bronze medal for her performance in the woman's flyweight division. Now, it's Shields' turn to really make an impression in the gold-medal match.
She'll be going up against Russian Federation boxer Nadezda Torlovova—a woman who's practically twice her age, at 33—in the middleweight division final on Thursday at 12:15 p.m. ET.
Win or lose, Shields has already proven that American women's boxing has a bright future. She's a bit cocky, throws down like a true brawler and has the skills to back up her attitude.
Men's boxing in the United States—once a towering monolith of power—has been eroding slowly but surely for the past couple of decades, and it finally disintegrated in 2012.
Now, in the first year that women are eligible to compete, it's the American women, led by Shields, that are stepping up in a major way.
What I find most interesting about Shields is that she looks to past champions for inspiration, rather than anyone currently making their way in U.S. boxing.
According to the New York Post's Karen Crouse, Shields looks to Sugar Ray Robinson for her inspiration—someone who died six years before her birth: "Whenever she is feeling stressed or having a bad day, Shields said, she gains inspiration by watching video of Robinson..."
It is rare that a 17-year-old teenager is so connected to one of the past greats of American boxing. Most young women her age are more concerned with what shoes they're going to wear to school than with men who have made history with their fists in years gone by.
But, if anyone—man or woman—is going to spark an American revival in the sport of boxing, he or she would be smart to take a page from the men who made U.S. boxing great in the first place. Shields has shown that her focus is in the right place, and she's prepped for a true watershed moment in a year when America needs her the most.