D ear Granny Joanne,
I’ve been thinking about that night in December in 2010 back home in Flint, Michigan. It was only a couple of weeks before you left us. Seven years. I can’t believe that it’s been that long.
We pulled up to Aunt Tammy’s house for Trayvon’s birthday. You in the front seat, Aunt Tammy driving, and me, Breanna and Peanut in the back. We all walked into the house, but you stayed behind. I sat on the couch for about five minutes, waiting for you to come in, but you didn’t. So I went back out and saw you still sitting in the front seat.
“Granny, everything O.K.?”
“Yeah, I just didn’t want to ask somebody to help me come in the house.”
Always with your pride, Granny. You never wanted any help. Never needed nobody. Even after you were diagnosed with cancer a second time. Didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for you. I have that stubborn pride too — I think it rubbed off on me. But I just looked back at you in the car.
“Granny, I got you! I’ll pick you up.”
“You’ll hold me Cocoa?”
You lifted one foot out the car and put your arm around me. I took on all your weight as we we walked into the house. It took us about five minutes to get to the door, of course, but we walked in together. And as much as we didn’t need other people, I look back and I think, more than anything, we needed each other.
Before you leaned on me, Granny, I leaned on you. At first, you were the one who took care of things. You took care of me. When I was five years old, after everything that happened with that man, after I told my Aunt Mary what he did to me, pointed to the doll. They had me move me in with you. You were going to look out for me.
I had my stutter then and I never spoke to anyone. Could barely even tell Aunt Tammy and Momma what happened. I’d just cry, wanting the words to come out. My R’s and W’s were the toughest — it felt like it took decades just to say the word what.
People would get so mad that I couldn’t talk. But I didn’t want to talk to nobody. And then I moved in with you and, I don’t know, I was just comfortable. I was calm around you. Maybe because it was just you and me. Maybe because, heck, you liked things a little quiet. But you never pushed me. And whenever you’d make me my favorite — spaghetti salad and cheesecake — we’d sit at your kitchen table … and talk. You gave me all the time in the world to find my words.
You gave me a safe haven from it all. But the one thing, you absolutely never had time for, was weakness. No time at all. I remember one time I was crying because my siblings came to visit and I wanted to leave with them, and you just glared at me.
“Outside! You can go sit on the porch!”
No tears, no weakness whatsoever were allowed in your presence. You didn’t even want to see it. Your strength, Granny, that’s what I think about when I think about you. A strong, black woman who went to college, wrote poetry, worked at the GM plant. Took care of her own kids, then her kid’s kids. I tell people, “Granny’s favorite word was clarification.” You wanted everything to be clear: What it is and what it isn’t.
“Don’t come over here giving me half stories.”
I tell them, “My Granny Joanne, she was 5′ 10″, but with a 6′ 2″ attitude.”
And yet, you found a way to let me in. Your Cocoa. When I moved in that first time, you were just healing from the cancer in your legs. You had me help you with the cream to help the skin heal back. I remember the scabs, how deep some of the wounds still were, the white meat of your legs.
How you’d have me run down to the shop around the corner. Get you your Mountain Dew, or a grape soda, or candies to fill the bowls you kept for anybody coming by. Everyone loved those candies.
And when your legs started to heal, and you could walk with a cane, and then with no cane at all, you’d tell everyone, “I wouldn’t be walking again, if it wasn’t for my Cocoa.”
Like I said, we needed each other.
I get so sad thinking about how you’re not here anymore. I think about all the things I want to tell you that I’ve done. How much I wish you were here to see it all.
How I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.
Moving back in with Mom a couple of years later … was tough. Her drinking turned her into a different person, Mike Tyson’s little sister. Arguing and fighting with everybody. You did something to her when she was sober? Well, she’d remember when she was drunk.
School wasn’t any better. I’d get picked on at school every single day. They’d pull my hair. Make fun of how I spoke. Rip up my notebooks. One day — in like third or fourth grade — and this girl pulled my hair. I said to her, “You pull my hair again, and I’m gonna beat you up.” So she walked past my desk again. And she pulled my hair.
I snapped. I put my head down and started to cry. But then, I balled up my fists, I stood up and I threw a chair at her. I was just so angry. Before I could lunge for her, my teacher pulled me back. They put me in one of those special classes, where we had to work on puzzles or talk about how we were feeling.
The woman who led the group told me one day to write down what made me angry.
That’s what I wanted to write.
School. Because it is filled with kids who are mean to me.
School. Because it isn’t 24 hours, and I have to go home.
Home. Because we don’t have a picture-perfect family.
Food. Because we never seem to have enough to eat.
Everything makes me mad.
And then finally, when I was 11, I found my place at Berston Field House. Right around the corner from your house on Spencer Street. I still remember the day I first met Coach Jason. Well, the first time I heard Jason Crutchfield. I ran into my friend Eddie outside Berston and we got to talking and then all of a sudden, I heard this man yelling.
“Eddie! Whatchu doin’, man? Go run! Go run!”
Eddie had been training with Jason and he was supposed to be doing laps around the block. I came by the next few days to check it out. Dad picked me up from school one day and started talking about Muhammad Ali and his daughter who had also become a boxer.
And a lightbulb kind of went off in my head. There’s this place that will let me box… Dad used to box… So I told Dad I wanted to box, too. At first, Dad told me, “Boxing’s a man’s sport.” But he soon gave in and paid the $60 for me to join boxing classes for a year.
The first day I went, I saw two guys sparring. I’d never seen anything like that before. And I thought to myself, I can’t wait to do that!
But because I was new, they just kept me in the corner for the first couple of weeks. For those sessions, all I worked on was my jab and righthand punch. I was working with this other coach, who showed me jabs and corrected me here and there. But one day, when he wasn’t at the gym, Jason called out to me.
“Hey! Come here and show me what you got!”
So I walked over, got in my stance and he yelled out, “Two count, go!”
I threw a double jab and an uppercut.
I threw a jab and a right cross.
Threw a jab.
And I threw it again.
Jason just stared at me for a moment and said, “She doin’ it better than the boooooooys! You’re comin’ with me from now on.”
And two months later, he told me to get my gear on to spar.
I threw it all on so fast — before he could change his mind.
I just nodded. And this boy across the ring, he was my age, but he’d been boxing for six years, and he just kept looking over at me and saying, “I’m about to kick your ass.”
As soon as the bell rang, I’m jabbing, jabbing — keeping him off me — jabbing, jabbing. I wasn’t freaking, just jabbing, jabbing. But then he caught me on my right eye and my eyes started to water. And once that happened? It was on. I threw my right hand at him, pinned him against the ropes, punching him, punching him, punching him, punching him.
Jason looked at me and was like, “You did good! You did good! You gonna be somebody! You keep working, you’re gonna be great.”
That’s when I felt like boxing was for me. It was the only thing I was winning at. Berston was a place that, when I went down here, every problem that I had, disappeared for two hours. I felt like if Jason said, “Do you wanna live here?” I would have brought a pillow and blanket and slept in the ring. My problems couldn’t get me in there. Nobody could abuse me there. Nobody could pick on me there. It was a big family. If we had problems at home with money and food, then Jason would pick me up from school to join his family for dinner before practice.
And then you came and met Jason, too. You’d sit in the corner and talk with him while I was training.
I think you knew I needed Berston as well.
There’s this other evening I think about a lot, too. I went to your house after training, which hadn’t gone well. I really thought about quitting that day. It was summertime and I was sitting on your porch, and you came out to see me.
“What’s wrong, Cocoa?”
“Whatever, nothing,” I grunted, my hands folded, as I stared straight ahead. “I had a bad day at training.”
“Well, Cocoa, I’ll tell you this, whatever you do, you keep listening to Jason.”
Not what I wanted to hear, Granny. I wanted you to tell me to quit. To take my side. But I always think about what you told me next.
“Boxing is good for you,” you told me. “So whatever you do, you keep boxing. Keep listening to Jason.”
And so I did.
Granny, I think all the time about what I’d want you to know. And I think the big thing is that I listened to Jason.
Usually, Jason would look over the newsletter that would list all the fights in the area. He’d set up fights for me to compete in in Detroit, Kalamazoo or Pontiac. But one day, he was looking over the newsletter, and at the bottom was a special announcement:
WOMEN’S BOXING TO BE ADDED TO THE 2012 OLYMPICS IN LONDON.
Jason looked up at me.
“We gonna fight in the Olympics.”
But there were only three weight classes: flyweight at 112 pounds, lightweight at 132 pounds and middleweight at 165 pounds. I was 138 pounds.
“We gonna fight in the Olympics. And we gonna fight at 165 pounds.”
Granny, I just laughed at him. How was I gonna gain 30 pounds to fight? Like I said, I thought he was crazy, but Jason kept saying, “You can be great. You will be great.” And for the next three years, Granny, we trained.
And I qualified for the Olympics as a middleweight boxer, at 165 pounds.
Granny, I listened to Jason, just like you told me to. And we went to London. Me! Your Cocoa, in London, can you believe that? And I wore Betty Boop socks, just for you because you loved that cartoon so much.
And you know what else? I won a gold medal. The first U.S. woman to win an Olympic gold medal for boxing.
There was talk afterwards about whether I should go pro, but I didn’t feel like I was respected in the sport yet. I wanted to show that I wasn’t a fluke. So I decided I’d go for back-to-back medals. And when I got out to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, I kept a bowl of candy in my room for anybody coming by. Just like you used to.
The night before the gold medal fight in Rio I couldn’t sleep. I never thought I’d be that close to making history. So many thoughts were going through my head. But mostly, Granny, I was thinking about your strength. About your single-minded focus. So, what was I going to do?
I was going to win.
Walking into the arena, I had all this emotion. I wanted to cry even before we got there. And then I thought, No tears, no weakness. So just before I went out to the ring, I hit my knees and I prayed. And when I stood up, I felt your strength, Granny. I couldn’t be messed with. I was made of steel. I couldn’t be hurt.
I couldn’t be stopped.
Erich Schlegel/USA TODAY Sports
What you said goes through my head all the time. Before every fight. Before my first pro fight, before my fourth fight when I became a world champion — a world champion, Granny.
And I’ll think about it again before my next fight, when I’ll defend my title again.
Whatever you do, you just keep boxing and you just listen to Jason.
When I turned pro after the Olympics, I knew rounds were only gonna get longer, fights were only gonna get harder and that Jason was the only person who knew how push me, even when I didn’t want to go any further.
He pushed me seven years ago, when I wasn’t sure how I could ever get back into the ring. Seven years ago, when I got the call that you had passed away.
I was devastated. What was I going to do without you? I didn’t want to go back to training. But back at Jason’s house he said something to me.
“You never like it, you just get used to it.”
I was staying with Jason and his family at the time and I was heartbroken. It was a few days before Christmas, and all I wanted was to be with you again. I wanted us to die together. I couldn’t handle it when they were picking out your outfit for the funeral — one of those skirt suits you always liked.
And at the wake, Granny, you just looked … the same to me. I kept wondering, Why won’t you just get up?
I think about the last time I saw you. The last time we spoke. I came by your house again, a little bit before you died, and you told me you thought this might be it. You told me to take care of my cousins, take care of my sister and brother and everything. And one more time, you looked over to me.
That’s what you told me that day. That’s what you showed me how to do every day.
And then you said, “Cocoa, make sure when they bury me, they bury me face down.”
I said, “Why, Granny?”
“So everyone can kiss my ass.”
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
It’s kind of funny thinking about that now. I mean, it was pretty funny when you said it then too. But, Granny, even after all my fights it still seems like people don’t want me to be strong, you know?
Sure, they like a woman who is an athlete, but they still want me to look a certain way, act a certain way, talk a certain way. Did anyone ever tell Michael Jordan, “Hey, man, stop telling people how much you love dunking on them?”
But you know, that just doesn’t work for us, does it? I’m here because you taught me how to fight, how to be strong. So I’m gonna to keep going, and I’m gonna keep listening to Jason, just like you told me to. And everyone else can kiss my ass, right?
That’s what I tell them, Granny. It’s all about clarification, just like you said.
Clarification of knowing who I am and being strong in who I am. So I’m telling people — the promoters, the fighters I’m up against — I’m telling them what it is and what it isn’t.
And that’s this: I’m a great boxer. You can’t beat me. You or your daddy. You or your momma. Write it down. Put it in your face.
You always told me that women can do anything we want. You always told me that I could do whatever I want.
I wish you were here to see it.
Claressa Shields defends her world titles Friday, January 12th at 10 p.m. ET/PT live on SHOWTIME.