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T-Rex: New documentary details the life of Olympic boxer Claressa Shields

Her battles inside and outside of the ring and her journey to the 2012 London Games keep it real

Claressa Shields will always remember where she came from.

The humble beginnings in her hometown of Flint, Michigan, her heartbreaking first career loss, her grueling road to the Olympics, the surreality of an Olympic gold medal being placed around her neck are all detailed in the 2016 documentary T-Rex. As Shields, 21, makes her trip to the 2016 Rio Olympics in hopes of becoming the first woman to win gold back to back, she reflects on her first journey and how it all began.

The documentary, directed by Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper, and produced by Sue Jaye Johnson and Bianca Darville, takes viewers into the life of the then-17-year-old Shields — a young boxer eager to travel far away from her family, friends and the confines of Flint and into one of the biggest stages of her life: The London 2012 Olympics, an especially memorable year. It was the first time women’s boxing was allowed in the Olympics, and Shields became the youngest Olympic boxing champion since 1924. The film crew was there to capture it all.

“At first, I was scared [to watch it] because some of it I was like, ‘Man, my family is crazy,’ ” Shields said. “A lot of the parts of the documentary, I wasn’t there and I didn’t know about, but then I realized I like the realness and the rawness of it. They were following me because of boxing. I was OK with it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was great.”

This may not have been possible without the documentary’s producer, Johnson, who first met Shields at an elite tournament and was immediately captivated by Shields’ spirit. At 16, Shields was powerful, determined and focused, which further piqued Johnson’s curiosity. The two sat down for what was supposed to be a 30-minute interview, but it quickly turned into hours of Shields being questioned about her life and career. A year later, Shields met directors Canepari and Cooper, who asked if they could film her life for a network series about young, phenomenal athletes. After talking it over and getting approval from Shields’ former coach Jason Crutchfield, cameras began rolling shortly after.

“We didn’t know what we were getting into when [Jason and I] said yeah, because they followed us a lot,” Shields said. “I had plenty of interviews. It got to where we actually became family and friends over time because I wasn’t hooked up to the mic all the time. I could talk to them about real life without being plugged up, but that’s how it started.”

According to Johnson, there was at least 400 hours of footage involved in the making of the documentary. Canepari would follow Shields around Flint, and heightened filming around her tournaments and various other bouts. At the same time, Canepari documented her journey in a series of still photographs detailing her life in Flint.

“To witness Claressa coming into her own truth has been beautiful,” Johnson said. “It hasn’t been easy, it hasn’t always been clear how things were going to go, but her transformation has been amazing to witness.”

Shields believes the documentary will shed light on the fact that she is human, raw and honest.

“People are in this state that I’m not human or I don’t have feelings,” Shields said. “I’m not supposed to speak on my life, or you’re a boxer, so all you’re supposed to be talking about is boxing and the water crisis. No. That’s something I don’t like.”

She also hopes the documentary will inspire people, no matter who they are or where they come from, to continue to strive and reach their goals.

“Sometimes the things you want to do that’s best for you, other people won’t understand,” Shields said. “You can do it if you put forth 100 percent. It doesn’t matter where you’re from — you can be from a poor city or a rich city. It doesn’t matter what your parents do or how they do it. What they do shouldn’t affect how your life goes. You make the decisions for your life.”

Voted the New York Times Critics’ Pick last month, T-Rex is set to air on Aug. 2 at 10 p.m. ET on PBS. The documentary can also be purchased on its website for earlier viewing.

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.