#WomensWednesday: The strong connection between judo and women’s wrestling

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | July 10, 2019, 7:51 p.m. (ET)
Three-time judo Olympian Sandra Bacher was also one of the greatest U.S. women’s freestyle wrestlers, winning World gold, silver and bronze medals for USA Wrestling while still competing in judo. USA Wrestling file photo.

Few people would argue that Clarissa Chun is one of the greatest women’s wrestlers in U.S. history, the winner of a 2012 Olympic bronze medal and a 2008 World gold medal in freestyle wrestling. Now serving as an Assistant National Women’s Coach for USA Wrestling, she is helping develop the next generation of wrestling heroes.

Chun can also vouch for the strong connection between judo and women’s wrestling. In fact, as a youth in Hawaii, Chun was a judo athlete before ever getting involved in wrestling.

“I love judo. It was my upbringing. It was a good discipline with a lot of structure. Judo came from Japan. I remember growing up. I was competitive, whether it was swimming, judo or gymnastics. In judo, there is a sense of respect for the sport, for the mat you practiced on. You bow before you get on the mat. You bow to your sensei. You bow to your opponents and training partners. Judo is technically ‘the gentle way.’ They say it’s a fight, but it is also an art. Growing up I enjoyed judo and everything about it,” said Chun.

Chun did not get involved in wrestling until her junior year in high school. Hawaii sanctioned girls wrestling as a pilot sport that year.

“I wrestled boys during dual meets and girls in the tournaments. My wrestling coach knew I had a judo background and asked me to wrestle. I said ‘no’ the first couple of years, because I was also a swimmer. I gave it a try my junior year. I always thought I’d go back to judo. I would do wrestling, and judo was something I could do in my 30’s, 40’s and 50’s,” said Chun.

The best example of how a judo athlete can also be very successful in wrestling is probably Sandra Bacher, who was one of the world’s best judo competitors before trying wrestling. Bacher was a member of three U.S. Olympic judo teams (1992, 1996, 2000).

While pursuing high judo goals, Bacher was recruited into trying wrestling at the same time, and had one of the best wrestling careers in U.S. history. Competing in wrestling before it was an Olympic sport, Bacher won a World gold medal in wrestling in 1999, plus a World silver medal in 1997 and a World bronze medal in 1998. Few athletes have been world-class in two different combat sports at the same time like Sandy Bacher was.

“She was just tough. Judo is such a good background for wrestling. She was at a time that you could do both. I don’t know how she did it. When I first started wrestling and the internet was new, I’d look up the athletes who wrestled and I’d see Sandy’s name. I would say, ‘she can do both, I want to try to do both.’ Initially, I wanted to do both,” said Chun.

Bacher was an example of a great judo athlete who came into wrestling and used that background to win in her new sport.

Chun fully believes that girls who wrestle should also try judo. In her early years as a USOPTC resident athlete in wrestling, Chun and the wrestlers would sometimes work with USA Judo coach Eddie Liddie to learn from him. She explains how a judo background can help person be a better wrestler.

“There’s awareness, how to fall, using my hips, how to throw, footwork. There’s grip fighting. It is a different kind of grip fighting than wrestling, but it was knowing how to use your hands,” said Chun.

If you go through U.S. women’s wrestling history, you will find many women wrestling champions who were also judo athletes, including National Wrestling Hall of Fame Distinguished Member Kristie Davis. On the wrestling mats, Davis won a record nine World medals, including two World titles. Before she became a world-class wrestler, Davis was also a nationally competitive judo athlete.
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Some of the other women wrestlers who had a judo background were two-time World bronze medalist Katie Downing, World Team member Stephany Lee, World Team member Treeva Cohee, two-time Junior World champion and current wrestling star Victoria Anthony and others.

Among the current women’s judo athletes who are also very accomplished in wrestling is Skylar Hattendorf, a freshman at Bow High School of New Hampshire, who is currently No. 4 at 127 pounds in the National Girls High School Wrestling Rankings. Hattendorf won the 2019 UWW Cadet Nationals in wrestling this year.

Chun also explains that recently Hattendorf won the Cadet and Junior Pan American Cup in judo. Hattendorf is clearly one of the top young judo athletes in the nation, also. She competes for the Pedro Judo Center in Massachusetts, which is led by one of the greatest Judo/Wrestling athletes of all time, Jimmy Pedro, now an Olympic judo coach. Pedro was a World champion and Olympic medalist in judo, and an EIWA wrestling champion for Brown University.

One of the current No. 1 ranked high school wrestlers in the nation, Amit Elor of College Park High School in California, also has a judo background.

Girls who compete and train in judo can become better in that sport by also participating in wrestling. There are things in wrestling which can help them in judo, says Chun.

“It also helps with body awareness, just the positions that wrestling puts you in. They are very similar because they are combative sports, where you use all of your body. There’s also that grit, the intensity, that inner drive in wrestling. Judo is thought of as the ‘gentle way,’ and then you have someone who is very physical in wrestling. You can get physical in judo, but you have to get yourself to that point. You can use finesse and leverage in judo also. Wrestling is more hands-on physical. That is something that wrestling offers to judo,” said Chun.

As a judo athlete who tried wrestling, Chun has put together a Hall of Fame resume in wrestling. But when she first tried it, she had no idea what would happen in her wrestling career.

“Growing up, I thought if I was going to go to the Olympics, it would be in judo and not wrestling,” said Chun.