Clarissa Chun celebrates her bronze medal at the Olympic Games London 2012 on Aug. 8, 2012 in London.
While men’s wrestling goes all the way back to the ancient Olympic Games in 708 BCE, women didn’t get their opportunity to compete on the Olympic stage until the Olympic Games Athens 2004 — or 2,712 years after the men.
In more ways than one, women are working to catch up.
That’s why former U.S. national team members Clarissa Chun and Jessica Medina, who are now assistant coaches with the U.S. women’s team, found themselves in Hartfield, England, last month, where they took part in a high-performance coaching program organized by the Women’s Sport Leadership Academy.
The Americans, along with three women from other countries, attended the weeklong event at the University of Hertfordshire in which they took part in exercises and lectures focused on building their leadership and technical skills.
It was just the first step in what will be a 14-month course designed to train high-level women’s coaches in wrestling as well as cycling, rowing, rugby, tennis and triathlon. The program is part of a partnership between the international federations for those sports as well as International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Solidarity program and is aimed at closing the persistent gender gap in Olympic sports.
The initial takeaway, Chun said, was positive.
“The exercises and lectures really taught me about how to take initiative and get involved in our sport in a new way,” said Chun, a two-time Olympian who won a bronze medal in 2012.
Added Medina: “They did a really good job of not necessarily presenting a lot of information but actually helping us utilize the tools we already have. And how to efficiently use that in our coaching.”
Medina, who twice competed at the world championships during her six years on the national team, said the conference provided a resource for building support networks, both in and out of their own sport. Medina noted the conference also did a lot of hands-on work through various situations and concepts.
“I think it was more so about utilizing what we already have and realizing that we’re able to use those skills in coaching,” she said. “That was really good.”
Growing women’s wrestling is a passion for both Chun and Medina.
Several states (though not all) now offer girls’ wrestling in high schools. That includes Hawaii and California, where Chun and Medina both started wrestling. Chun said there were just two girls on the high school team her first year, but that number grew to 15 girls the next year. She’s seen similar growth across the sport in general.
“I think girls want to wrestle other girls,” said Chun, who also won a world title in 2008. “I think there is a push to give these girls the opportunity to wrestle. And if each state can jump on board and offer girls’ wrestling at the high school level, then I think it’s kind of like that thing: ‘If we build it, they will come.’”
Medina agreed, noting that there now are 19 states that have girls in high school wrestling, up from just seven only five years ago.
“There has really been a huge interest in attention to female athletics, and women’s wrestling has definitely been one of those,” she said. “I think it’s also been a big part of the support from male coaches and just starting programs and really people getting programs started within their state.”
Now, though, the push is for more women to step into leadership and coaching roles.
Chun said she wasn’t sure if she wanted to coach after her competitive career ended but now finds herself helping train the athletes who will compete at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. In their current roles, Chun and Medina are helping build a stronger foundation of women’s coaches within the sport.
“I think that’s the global problem,” Medina said. “So over time we will question how to solve that, and I think as women’s sports are supported more there will be more of a foundation for female coaches and for life being a wife, married, with kids, what that looks like. I think it’s going to evolve for female coaches as well."
“I think that’s definitely the direction we’re headed. And again, it’s just kind of problem solving and how to support female coaches throughout their career.”
Chun and Medina have done well in coaching, where they aim to lead their athletes on and off the mat.
“With the development age group, we emphasize respect, gratitude, life lessons,” Chun said. “Off the mat, building their character as good human beings. Things we want to teach on the mat—as a team—are based on drills or depending if we’re coming off competitions, areas of focus that we need to work on. Like our strength. I think we try to help the athlete become a good person. Knowing that it takes more than the technical and physical aspect but also the mental and emotional aspect.
“Also educating them about their nutrition and what their life is like on and off the mat. … I think half the sport is mental. More than half.”
And most likely, they will help the women’s sport grow and get even better.
“The women’s program in the U.S. is growing,” Chun said. “I think with that, the program can only get better.”
Jim Caple is a former longtime writer for ESPN and the St. Paul Pioneer Press based in Seattle. He has covered sports on six continents, including 12 Olympic Games and 20 World Series. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.