Clarissa Chun didn’t need to wait for the referee to raise her arm signaling victory. The women’s 48 kg. freestyle wrestler was already running in circles around the mat with an American flag flying high.
The first medal of the 2012 Games for U.S. wrestling came from the smallest competitor, who at 30 years of age claimed her first Olympic medal at ExCel Arena on Wednesday. Chun battled her way back through the repechage and defeated two-time Olympic medalist Irini Merlini to take home a bronze medal.
“I’m so grateful for every opportunity I get to step on the mat,” Chun said. “I’m grateful to represent the U.S, my family, my coaches, my friends and supporters. I wish I could shake everyone in the stands’ hands."
The 30 minutes between the repechage match – where Chun pinned Poland’s Iwona Matkowska – and the bronze medal match made all the difference for Chun. In 2008 in Beijing, Chun said she was too emotional heading into the match knowing what was at stake and allowed Merlini to get the best of her and win the bronze medal. Chun finished fifth at the Games.
This time around, Chun said she went in the back room behind the mat, thought about her shot at redemption and tried to block everything else out.
“I stayed calm and collected and excited for the opportunity,” said Chun.
Chun finished a takedown as time winded down in the first period to go up 1-0 and in the second period, used an arm throw to counter Merleni’s takedown attempt. The move came from Chun’s judo background and when it exposed Merleni’s back to the mat, three points were secured and Chun went running over toward Coach Terry Steiner.
“For her to be able to hold things together and believe in herself and instead of relying on everyone else, she really had come to the point where she knew she could do it,” Steiner said. “She’s an unbelievable talent and a super human being on top of that.”
It was a long chase to the podium for Chun, who started the day with a 5-0, 1-0 victory against China’s two-time bronze medalist Shasha Zhao. Chun dropped her second match to Azerbaijan’s Mariya Stadnyk, 2-0, 3-0, but was pulled back into the repechage when Stadnyk made the finals. Chun responded with the pin against Matkowska and then readied to face the 2004 gold medalist.
Steiner said watching Chun evolve into an elite wrester has brought him a great deal of joy. Last year, a message was directed at her as she was told that even though she’s a small package at 4 foot, 11 inches, she still has a lot to offer as a highly skilled competitor. Chun bought into that mantra and hopes that her medal will help turn the tide for the other U.S. wrestlers at the Games.
Also yesterday, Chun’s teammate Elena Pirozhkova lost to Latvia’s Anastasija Grigorjeva in the opening round of the women’s 63 kg. freestyle wrestling competition. Pirozhkova won the first period, 2-0, but dropped the next two by scores of 5-0 and 2-0. She was eliminated from competition after Grigorjeva lost to Mongolia’s Battsetseg Soronzobold.
The other two women’s wrestlers compete Thursday, while men’s freestyle opens on Friday.
“Sometimes you just need something to get the ball rolling. Sometimes it’s just a belief that you can do it,” Chun said.
Steiner echoed those sentiments and said he hopes Chun’s medal will give all the other wrestlers the belief that they too can stand on the podium.
“For all three programs, we’re not about just being here. We put too much time and effort in,” he said. “For these athletes you want to see them leave here with rewards. It helps everyone. Success breeds success and we need that. Like everyone always says, the medal is for everyone.”