Hundreds gathered in Flint, Mich., Tuesday, to celebrate the return home of Olympian Claressa Shields. At 17, Shields became the first U.S. woman ever — and the only American this summer — to win a gold medal in boxing.
In a rare moment of joy, Flint greeted the high school student with a marching band and a motorcycle escort.
Shields had spent a long day traveling and being stuck in airports. But this day, she was no ordinary traveler. The airline held a connecting flight for her. And when her plane landed at Bishop International Airport in Flint, she was greeted by a loud and enthusiastic welcome home.
Flint's Northwestern High School marching band got together — in the summertime, no less — to celebrate its classmate.
At the airport, it was hard to pick out the gold medalist, because she was surrounded by so many other 17-year-olds. Dozens of people were calling her name — and more often than not, she returned the greeting.
From the airport, Shields got into a limousine with a police escort, and traveled through town to the site where she learned to box.
If you drive the five miles through Flint that Shields' limo took, you can see the remains of what once was a thriving town. There are shuttered plants, and miles of vacant lots. The city of just over 100,000 has seen more than 40 murders just this year.
At the Berston Field House where Shields learned to box, everyone speaks of her triumph, and of the violence in Flint, including her coach and trainer, Jason Crutchfield.
"It helps Flint out a lot," he says. "With what's going on in Flint, all this crazy stuff — I mean, this is some sanity. You know? It's some sanity. Especially out of a young person like that — other young kids killing each other. And I mean, she's done something good."
Crutchfield and other boxers from Flint gathered in the ring where Shields learned to box. Lonnie Stubbs is also a coach at Berston. And even days after her gold medal fight, Stubbs spoke through tears about Claressa Shields.
"Sometimes I just can't believe it, man. Young lady gold — the only young lady to bring back a gold medal — from the boys and the women. And then, being the first woman to ever get a gold medal in America. We ain't talkin' about Flint; we ain't talkin' about the state of Michigan — we talkin' about the United States."
After walking into the gym, Shields finally climbed into the ring, to cheers and chants of "USA, USA, USA." She showed off the footwork and punches that won her the gold.
Talking to reporters, Shields acknowledged how much her win meant not just to her, but to Flint.
With her gold medal, "I won Flint's hope," she said. "I kind of brung them together, you know? And I just made myself happy. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I hadn't gotten the gold medal. Because I worked so hard, so I wanted nothing but gold."
In answering almost every question, Shields spoke about Flint and what the gold means to her hometown.
"People look at Flint as a bad place. But you know, whenever Flint decides to come together, we make a huge impact. So I feel that we should stay together. And then some of the violence would stop, and just drop all the stuff that's been going on."
Shields says she can already feel the pressure after returning to town.
"I know that everybody wants just a little piece of me," she says. "I'm just going to pray about it. I like for, when people see me, that they're happy to see me. But I don't want them all over me, like I'm Beyonce or something."
But Beyonce doesn't have to go to high school next month — and she doesn't have a gold medal.