June 2, 2009
Most afternoons, Clarissa Chun felt so drained from teaching, she needed a big cup of coffee to stay awake. Most nights, she felt so frustrated with wrestling, she questioned why she had moved overseas to train.
Her Japanese kindergarten students were easy to please, as she loved helping them learn English, but several 20-person classes took their toll. Plus, she didn't progress much by practicing among college-aged guys 40 pounds heavier than her.
"It wasn't the ideal situation," Chun said.
The 2008 Olympian returned to Colorado Springs in February, four months after taking up roots in a small city three hours outside Tokyo, and she already has recaptured the determination that carried her within a win of a bronze medal last year in Beijing.
Chun, 27, earned a chance to defend her 105.5-pound world title, defeating Alyssa Lampe in Sunday's championship series of the U.S. world team trials in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The world championships are in September in Herning, Denmark.
Three Americans have captured back-to-back world crowns - Lee Kemp in freestyle in 1978 and 1979; John Smith in freestyle in 1989, 1990 and 1991; and Tricia Saunders in 1998 and 1999. Saunders (four) and former Olympic Training Center resident Kristie Marano (two) are the only U.S. women with multiple world golds.
Lots of familiar faces will probably stand in Chun's path, including Ukrainian Irini Merleni, who pinned Chun in the bronze-medal match in Beijing, and Japan's Chiharu Icho, a narrow winner over Chun in the Olympic semifinals.
The first Hawaiian to make an Olympic wrestling team, Chun looks ready, with more explosive setups, stronger finishing moves and improved hand and head positioning that she'll refine this summer at tournaments in Canada and Poland and in training with Keith Wilson at Rough House MMA and Fitness.
"I'm the one they're trying to come after," Chun said. "Gaining the credentials, being at the Olympics, winning a world title - it's everyone gunning for me. I need to know how to handle that pressure, handle that expectation. I need to wrestle the way I know I can wrestle and not let outside things bother me."
Chun enjoyed living in Nakatsugawa, an industrial city with 86,000 residents. She often mingled with the locals, developing an appreciation for "the Japanese culture, their way of life - it's so unique and different. They take the time, something as simple as creating a meal. If you had dessert, it won't be too sweet. It seems just right."
But few people there speak English, and Chun isn't fluent in Japanese. More troublesome, when Chun wrestled against women, "they threw five different girls at me and rotated them at me. Every time I would defend a shot, their coach would yell at them. It was kind of like a scouting session."
Chun feels relaxed being back in Colorado Springs. And she's confident.
"My wrestling career is only so long," she said. "I need to take it right now, keep riding that wave. I still have that fire to compete. ... I'll start with the world title again. That sounds real nice."