July 21, 2008
For Clarissa Chun, the conversation with the person sitting next to her on the airplane never changes.
"You look fit. Are you an athlete?" the stranger asks the 4-foot-9, 105-pound dynamo with a flat stomach and bulging arms.
"Take a guess," Chun responds.
The stranger incorrectly guesses Chun does gymnastics, then misses with a second sport, sometimes swimming. Feeling bad, Chun says she's a wrestler.
"What?" the stranger responds in disbelief. "Wrestling?"
It's not that nobody thinks Chun can pin opponents on the wrestling mat. Most people Chun meets don't know women's wrestling exists.
The Colorado Springs resident faces a long road in the fight for respect, even after an upset of Olympic Training Center teammate Patricia Miranda that landed her a spot in the Beijing Games next month.
Women's wrestling debuted at the 2004 Athens Games, where Miranda won a bronze medal after convincing wins over Chun at the Olympic trials.
Ever since, minimal strides have made narrowing the gap with men's wrestlers difficult for women's wrestling pioneers like Chun, a 26-year-old former judo player from Honolulu whose father is Chinese and mother is Japanese.
Women didn't wrestle until the 1980s, when the sport caught fire in France and Scandinavian countries. The International Amateur Wrestling Federation (FILA) sanctioned it in 1987, the year of the first women's wrestling world championships.
Eight colleges offer women's wrestling as a varsity sport. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, about 5,000 high school girls wrestled last year - a small number compared to the droves of girls who participated in soccer, softball and volleyball.
"Some people have a hard time with it," said Chun, the first Hawaiian wrestler to make the Olympics. "It has always been a male sport. Some people look at us and say that the level of our wrestling is not comparative to their level of wrestling."
OTC wrestler Brad Vering predicts the newness of women's wrestling will make it a "big sport" in Beijing.
"It's different," Vering said. "People want to know what's different. They're not used to seeing two girls roll around on the mat."
Added men's wrestler Joe Williams: "They need to touch women in the community. Let women know this is what they're doing, so they can feed off that."
The effort is bolstered by Chun, undoubtedly the underdog on a team that includes Ali Bernard and OTC residents Randi Miller and Marcie Van Dusen.
Chun had an inconsistent year, losing momentum from a gold medal at the Pan American Championships in a fourth-place finish at the U.S. National Championships. She topped Alyssa Lampe, OTC resident Sara Fulp-Allen and Mary Kelly at the Olympic trials before stunning Miranda with late-period scores.
"I wasn't intimidated by her," Chun said of Miranda.
Still, Chun maintains there's plenty of work left. And it starts by eliminating stereotypes about women's wrestlers.
"To hear something bad about women's wrestling is hard," Chun said. "It's like saying something bad about my family. I am going to be offended by it. It's a part of me."
Contact the Writer: 636-0256 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Olympics Web sites at gazette.com/olympics and springsolympiczone.com