Olympic winner Clarissa Chun is used to being first.
She was among the first group of girls to win a Hawai‘i state high school
wrestling championship. She was one of the first to enter a women’s college
wrestling scholarship program in the U.S. And she’s the first American female
wrestler to compete in multiple Olympic Games.
Chun, who grew up competing in judo, swimming, and water polo, attributes her success
to inspirational mentors. “Sports was a love-hate relationship,” she
says of high school athletics. “It was so tough that I hated it. But it made
me better. My coaches were tough, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I
wouldn’t want it easy. Struggling makes the accomplishment feel more worthwhile.”
Chun started wresting in her junior year at Roosevelt High School. She won the high
school state championship in 1998, the year girls wrestling became a sanctioned
sport. That led to a wrestling scholarship at Missouri Valley College. When it was
announced that women’s wrestling would become an Olympic sport, Chun transferred
to the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs to train at the Olympic Training
She entered the 2008 Beijing Olympics as an underdog and reached the semifinals.
She competed in last year’s London games and won the bronze medal, beating
the same Ukrainian opponent who beat her in Beijing. It was a sweet victory. “You
can either fall under the pressure of being at the Olympics or rise. And somehow
I feel I can just rise,” she says.
No matter how many times people ask her what it’s like to win an Olympic medal,
Chun reacts as if she’s telling it for the first time. “I felt so grateful
for the opportunity to represent the U.S., Hawai‘i, and my family, friends,
and coaches who’ve always been there for me. I felt so blessed,” she
Chun, who moved to Missouri, trains almost every day with a combination of cardio
and weight-training exercises. She took time off this year after shoulder surgery
in April. She’s also had knee and elbow surgeries. It’s a stark reminder
that an athlete’s body doesn’t last forever. “I’ve been
through a lot of injuries and have always come back stronger,” says Chun,
who turns 32 in August.
Despite this latest setback, she’ll continue to train and go for gold for
the last time in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It may also be the last year
for Olympic wrestling. Officials are expected to decide this year whether or not
to drop Olympic wrestling after 2016. Chun and her teammates are battling to save
it. “The fight is not for me,” she says. “The fight is for the
sport and for the younger generation.”
Chun returns to Hawai‘i often to reconnect with family and friends and teach
high school wrestling clinics. A role model for young local athletes, she was the
keynote speaker at the 2013 HMSA Kaimana Awards & Scholarship Program’s
annual luncheon in June. Her message? “Find your passion – something
you’re interested in. Stick to it even if you receive criticism. Work hard
because nothing comes easy. And have fun!” she says.
That’s worth more than its weight in gold.