Clarissa Chun was a U.S. Olympian … been there done that, twice.
More than that, she is an example … perhaps the best possible example … for Hawaii’s girls wrestlers to follow, whether or not they want to compete for fun or go as far as possible in the sport.
Chun, a 1999 Roosevelt graduate and two-time state champion, was at Punahou’s Hemmeter Fieldhouse for last week’s Pa’ani Challenge to run a Wednesday clinic and to help give out awards on Thursday.
It would be wise for any Hawaii girls wrestler to listen to what Chun has to say about getting to the top portion of the mountain. Not many get there. She knows the way.
“Honestly, I could talk about whatever to them (the Hawaii girls wrestlers),” Chun said before the Pa’ani awards ceremony, “but for me, I like to tell them about how it’s about finding the joy in wrestling, keeping it fun. The best thing about me coming back here — I love coming back — is that there’s so much pride, the pride of Hawaii and representing where you’re from, whether it’s what side of the island you’re from or what school you went to. When I stepped on the mat, it said USA (on the uniform), but it was more than just USA. It was family, Roosevelt, Hawaii, where I grew up. Friends. Hawaii is awesome in that way, so much support. People in Hawaii pay attention.”
That is no lie. All of the girls and boys wrestling tournaments pack the gym with spectators.
“That is something special,” Chun added. “They (the Hawaii girls wrestlers) have something special, great opportunities presented to them.”
One of those opportunities, according to Chun, is the Pa’ani Challenge.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “I rave about it to everyone around the world that we have this all-girls tournament, but it’s not just a tournament. I’m lucky enough that they bring me in to do the clinic.”
Lucky. Think about that. Here is Wonder Woman, now an assistant coach with the U.S. Olympic team, who feels lucky she can run a high school clinic.
She also used the term “we” when referring to the tournament. She’s not an outsider coming in. She’s a part of it. A big part.
“On top of that, there is a college and career fair (at Pa’ani), so these girls can take a look at opportunities for their future, and there are motivational guest speakers. They (the Pa’ani committee members) do a fantastic job running it.”
On top of that, Chun believes the format is the correct one. With two separate divisions (Novice and Open), wrestlers get to compete against girls of their own caliber.
“First-year wrestlers can get a lot of matches in and they don’t have to be paired up with someone who has been wrestling all their life,” she said. “It can be hard and discouraging to be a first-year wrestler wrestling somebody who has been wrestling a long time, feeling like, ‘How am I getting better?’ Everyone wants to know that they’re growing.”
She hit on something there; often in sports today, coaches key in on the elite athletes, and sometimes there is a tendency to give less attention to those who don’t show immediate promise.
Chun has much more enlightenment to give for those who want to listen.
“When we think of sports, especially at the high school level, we think of big, fast, strong — the physical aspect. I think now people are understanding that there is a mental game as well,” she said.
Case in point: There was a time, of course, when Chun had yet to make the Olympic team and wasn’t sure if she would.
“To make the 2008 Olympics, I had to beat a teammate of mine, Patricia Miranda, who I had never beaten,” she said. “I had a lot of respect for her because she trained so hard and was so strong — all these things that put her on a pedestal. It was a mental thing for me — in believing in myself that I was capable. She had won the bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics, so it was a huge turning point for me to get over the hump of trusting in my abilities and believing in myself and not showing her that much respect in order to make that adjustment.”
Any wrestler — any athlete — knows about that daunting pedestal the other girl or guy is up on. Not everyone realizes that it’s more important to, slowly if need be, build your own pedestal than to look at the other one.
Chun, who wrestled in college for the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, is a five-time gold medalist at the Pan-Am Games (2008, 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2016) and she also won gold at the World Championships in Tokyo in 2008. She did not medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but she did win the bronze at the 2012 London Olympics.
For 2016, Chun did not make it to the Rio Olympics due partly to injuries. She did, however, go there as good friend Helen Maroulis‘ training partner, and Maroulis wound up becoming the first American woman to win Olympic gold.
“That was exciting to be able to help her prepare for her journey and see her accomplishments,” Chun said.
Asked if she wants to go back to competition instead of coaching, Chun said, “No. I’m good. I still get out on the mat and wrestle with the girls and train with them. Not every day, not as often, not twice a day. People always ask if I miss it and if I think I might come back for 2020 (Tokyo Olympics). No. I don’t miss it. I love what I’m doing now.”
At least two Hawaii girls, Teshya Alo and younger sister Teniya Alo, have their sights on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“Amazing talent,” Chun said about the Alos. “I hope they continue on and put in the hard work that needs to be done because I think talent can get you so far and everyone is training hard, everyone wants to make the Olympic team. I would love to see them come through and make the commitment to get on that journey.”