Clarissa Chun: The road beyond Beijing
When Clarissa Chun left Beijing last summer with a fifth-place finish in women's Olympic freestyle wrestling, she had a lot of things to wrestle with about her future.
"I wasn't sure whether to continue wrestling, walk away or even take a year off," Chun said.
She continued to wrestle --- on the mat and in her mind --- and two months after competing in Beijing, she captured the gold medal at in the 48kg (105.5-pound) class at the FILA Wrestling World Championships in Tokyo. Then she left the U.S. team and remained in Japan to begin a one-year assignment teaching English to students ages 3 through 6.
Chun stayed in Japan for four months. She tried to maintain some of her wrestling training while she was overseas, but struggled to keep herself at the level she desired. So Chun ended her teaching commitment and moved back to Colorado Springs, Colo. There, she could train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and resume working out under the supervision of personal coach Keith Wilson.
"Keith had said, 'Take a year off if you want, just make sure you stay in shape,' " Chun said. "But it was hard for me to get what I needed in strength and conditioning.
"It was hard to get workouts for myself."
Chun, who at 27 was the oldest of the seven-member American team at the 2008 world championships, came back to the United States to watch a tournament in February and knew it was time to get back to work.
"I didn't want to waste another year,'' she said.
Chun, an explosive wrestler especially for someone who stands at 4-11, has made the most of the season that almost wasn't. Instead of taking a year off, she has turned it into a year of progress.
And now she appears to be on track to defend her world title in September when she travels to the 2009 World Championships in Herning, Denmark.
Her return from her brief layoff began in April when she claimed her second career title at the national championships in Las Vegas. There, she defeated World University Games silver medalist Sara Fulp-Allen and was named Outstanding Wrestler. The national championship earned Chun a top seed in the U.S. World Team Trials, where Chun again came out on top in Council Bluffs, Iowa, at the end of May.
"It took five or six weeks, until after nationals before she was clicking on all cylinders," Wilson said. "She found a way to win, which was awesome."
Still, Chun sees room for improvement.
"Right now, in domestic competition within the U.S., I don't feel I open as much as I'd like to," Chun said. "I feel like I'm protecting. I have to let go."
By the time she competed at the Canada Cup on International Wrestling in July, Wilson really was encouraged, saying, "she was back to her Olympic and world championships form.''
When she competes at the world championships, Wilson wants Chun to be on the attack. He frequently reminds her that it can be just as hard to defend a title as it is to win it the first time.
"Keith said I have to go out and grab the world championship again, not defend the last one," Chun said. "I have to trust that training I've been doing."
Her journey toward becoming a world champion began when she was growing up in Honolulu. She had been a swimmer and had even been a state meet qualifier as a sophomore.
Chun, who also played water polo at Roosevelt High, decided to join the wrestling team as a junior. She took advantage of training in judo to make an immediate impact. After wrestling against boys at 103 pounds throughout the regular season, Chun won back-to-back state girls championships.
"Other judo girls wrestled that year and did well, too," said Chun, who had started judo when she was 7. "My main competition from judo was one weight class up in wrestling."
The high school success started a path that included taking a scholarship to become part of the first women's team at Missouri Valley College, then she moved to Colorado Springs to train with the nation's other top women's wrestlers.
She was runner-up in the first U.S. Olympic Trials in 2004 and had been a four-time national runner-up before winning her first national title in 2006.
Then last summer, she won the U.S. Olympic Trials, defeating Patricia Miranda, an eight-time national champion and a bronze medalist from the Athens 2004 Olympic Games in the process. Chun wasn't going to be satisfied with being runner-up any longer.
"I thought to myself, 'I worked too hard, I came too far, I've come too close,' " Chun said. "That day I thought about how now's my chance. I'm tired of being on the sideline.
I worked the last year to take this step. I fought for every point, every takedown."
"That whole day, everything I did, I wrestled in the moment," Chun added. "I didn't think about anything. I didn't think about shots.
"Everything just came to me."
Chun left for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games determined to put together more performances like the one she had at the Trials. But Japan's Chiharu Ichu, a world champion, ended Chun's gold-medal hopes with a victory in the semifinals. Ichu went on to win the silver medal.
"She wrestled well at the Olympics,'' Wilson said. "She just ran into a pit bull of a weight class. She beat two world champions and had the lead on the Olympic champion."
That defeat in the Olympic Games served as motivation for the future.
"After the loss in the semifinals, I knew I was not done," Chun said. "I hadn't done my best. I wanted another shot to wrestle; to wrestle in the Olympics."
She might have taken a bit of a break shortly after those Games. But it's clear now that the only thing she is wrestling with is how she might win a gold medal in 2012.
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Tom Robinson is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.