Go To the Body, Then to the HeadErin Hill
You don’t have to know anything about boxing to know this: when you watch 17-year-old Claressa ‘T-Rex’ Shields fight in her 2012 quarterfinal Olympic middleweight match against Anna Laurell, a woman with four inches and fifteen years’ experience on her, you are watching something phenomenal. Even on a tiny YouTube screen, your eyes track blazing-speed-punches, and you see a scrapper. From Flint, Michigan, in a deep-water-blue USA uniform, Shields is explosive, the aggressor from jump. Despite a 2-4 deficit after the first round, she never looks phased. A strategy change makes the difference: “Go to the body, then to the head.” When she wins, 18-14, she looks happy – relaxed, even – but not at all surprised.
Round One, Wherein I Learn About Surprising Overlaps
That 135 East Davis sat empty in our little village didn’t make any sense. In this market, owners could easily triple their money on a sale. The bungalow had been vacant for years, and I grew increasingly curious. A friend encouraged me to check the county auditor’s page. From there, I went down the rabbit hole.
The owner of record: Dr. Robin Goodfellow. A quick Google search revealed she had died in 2019, but her obituary piqued my interest.
Graduated first in her class at Case Western Reserve University, 1967.
Graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Medical School, 1971.
First woman chief surgical resident at Boston’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital.
Featured in a 1976 issue of People Magazine.
Ringside physician for the Junior Boxing Federation.
Ringside physician for the US Olympic Boxing team; “served in this capacity at the 2012 Olympics in London.”
Loved to travel, read, and garden.
This woman was a badass, one block over. I’m sad I never had an opportunity to get to know her. We would have been friends.
The 2012 Olympic Boxing team was projected to perform well at that year’s games. With a roster of twelve, ten of whom would go on to become world champions, medal hopes were high. Names you would recognize: Jose Ramirez, Anthony Joshua, Errol Spence Jr.
An added layer of excitement: 2012 was the first year women’s boxing was officially sanctioned as an Olympic sport. The US team listed three women on the roster, names less recognizable: 17-year-old Claressa Shields (middleweight), 23-year-old Marlen Esparza (flyweight), and 28-year-old (Quanitta) Queen Underwood (lightweight).
By all professional standards, the team underperformed at the games – the men, to be more precise. You probably didn’t hear much about it, but two women medaled: Esparza won bronze, and Shields won gold. Their corner: Gloria Thornton-Peek, the first woman International Boxing Coach.
Round Two, Wherein Men Underestimate These Scrappers
The May 10, 1976, issue of People features a substantive article about Dr. Robin. Where I had expected a blurby textbox, I found a two-page spread, complete with four black and white photos – although I am disappointed to see that the writer, a woman, begins by quoting two men, mediating our meeting of Dr. Robin.
“A male colleague says, ‘You should see her in a surgical gown, five feet tall, running the operating room just the way it should be run.’”
Sigh. Seems he stopped just short of adding “little lady.”
“Another physician agrees: ‘There aren’t many of her kind.’”
“Dr. Goodfellow herself says, sternly but not unhappily, ‘Somebody had to be first. It happened to be me. The whole thing has gotten out of proportion.’”
According to a 2021 profile by writer Jess Downey, Peek was repeatedly passed over by USA Boxing to coach the Olympic team. “’I was traveling the world coaching so many teams. They passed me over because they didn’t have the courage to step outside the box and have a woman coach the Olympics. In 2004, I was in the top three coaches, and I thought I’d get it. Nope. In 2008, I was again the top two or three…but it didn’t happen.’” She finally got her shot in 2012, and she returned in 2016, helping Shields win back-to-back gold.
Jason Crutchfield, Shields’ hometown coach, says in the 2016 documentary T-Rex, “I would never imagine she would come this far…because I didn’t agree with female boxing at the time.” Shields started training with Crutchfield when she was eleven, and “she caught on real quick.”
According to Shields, her father didn’t want her to compete. “He said no at first. He said boxing was a man’s sport or something like that. It wasn’t the right reason to tell me not to box.”
Crutchfield later said, “I think I got one [a champion]. I just never thought it was gonna be a girl.”
“She had determination out of this world. She doesn’t think anybody can beat her. Nobody. And some people take it as cockiness, but I just look at it as confidence. True confidence. Real confidence.”
Round Three, Wherein I Decide That I, Too, Can Throw Punches
Exactly two weeks after my 48th birthday, I determine I can’t go any further with this essay until I have some embodied knowledge of what I’m writing about. I’m an athlete – volleyball, basketball, tennis, yoga, running, softball, all in my wheelhouse – but I’m no pugilist. Never shadow boxed. Never even tried on a pair of mitts. It was time to glove up.
I scouted several local gyms, but many had waitlists; I left my name and number and hoped for schedule changes. Coach Rod called at 7:15 on a Saturday morning. He had a cancellation at 9:00 AM. Did I want it? Without thinking, I said, “I’ll be there.”
When I arrived at the gym, I had no idea what to expect, and that turned out to be a good thing. Rod started me on the bike, and then he grabbed a pair of white, burgundy, and gold Everlast gloves and got me geared up; I felt simultaneously tough and ridiculous. We walked over to a T-grid numbered one through four, clockwise, on the black matte floor. I am right-handed, so my left foot went in the one square, my right in the three square. Rod grabbed two Everlast pads and began assigning numbers to my hands and punches. In this perimenopausal phase of life, I feel brain foggier than ever, but I concentrate hard on his direction. Before I can stop to overthink (my calling card) or even think at all, he says, “Let’s get it,” and I am throwing punch combinations, dodging his pseudo-counterpunches, and feeling like some kind of million dollar baby. I am also feeling like I might throw up. I take deep breaths while we reset; this is SO.MUCH.HARDER than I expected. I try not to think about it. I’d spent my life in my head; it was time to reverse the order. Go to the body, then to the head.
Round Four, Wherein Shields Wins Gold
A bookend fight: Shields’ first Olympics at age 17, Nadezda Torlopova’s final Olympics at age 33. Tied 3-3 after round one. Shields seems slightly less aggressive at the start, but she finds her footing to take a 10-7 lead after the second. She leads 15-10 after three, and Coach Gloria says in the corner, “Alright, good job. You did what you needed to do. Now let’s have some fun.” She cradles Shields’ head like a mother and leans close; what she says is inaudible, but Shields nods, locked in.
As she dodges and weaves, avoiding several consecutive round-four punches, she sticks out her tongue, reminiscent of MJ. She is having a blast. She is good and she knows it. With a final score of 19-12, Shields wins her first Olympic gold medal.
The announcer contextualizes it for us – because let’s make sure we understand this achievement as it relates to men: “The storied men’s team returned home empty-handed without a boxer on the podium for the first time in Olympic history…but Claressa Shields has surely punched her way to Olympic immortality by claiming the inaugural Olympic middleweight title with a wonderful display of boxing, power punching, and commitment…this young teenage force of nature has simply overwhelmed all of her opponents…what an advert for women’s boxing: a personality, an accomplished boxer, and somebody who’s restored some golden luster to the USA Amateur Boxing program that really was in the doldrums from the men’s point of view.”
Robin, Claressa, Marlen, Gloria. Their names mean “bright,” “shining,” or “glory.” They were all firsts. I have never been first at anything.
I may be late to the ring, but I’m a scrapper too. After years of personal stall out, over a decade of standing eight counts, I’ve resumed life as an athlete and an artist, two loves of my youth. And I remind myself that when Shields was down in her quarterfinal match, “Slowly, slowly, almost imperceptibly, [she] fought her way back with hard, accurate punching.” In her eleven-year career since, she has lost one – ONE – fight.
In the fall of 2022, an estate sale was held at the 135 East Davis bungalow. Eager to see where Dr. Robin had grown up, I walked over on a rainy Friday afternoon. I passed through the rooms, imagining greatness. The house needed major updates, but the bones were good. I purchased just one item, for just one dollar: a 2012 London Olympics Boxing magnet. It hangs on my refrigerator now, and I glance at it before I work out and before I write. A deep breath, a new mantra: go to the body, then to the head.
Time to land some punches.