Hawaiian wrestler who bounced back from big-stage heartbreak set to mentor aspiring stars as Athlete Role Model at Youth Olympic Games.
“I will share (with the YOG athletes) what I learned from that, remind them that they have earned the opportunity to be there and represent themselves and their families and their nations with great honour, and that all that anyone would ask of them would be to do their best."
Clarissa Chun has a simple message for the young athletes at Buenos Aires 2018: if at first you don’t succeed, get your head right and try again. And the US freestyle wrestler, one of 50 Athlete Role Models (ARMs) at next year’s Youth Olympic Games (YOG), has plenty of personal experience on which to base such advice.
Chun’s first forays onto the biggest stages – at the world championships in 2000 and the 2008 Olympic Games – did not go too well. The Hawaiian athlete admits she was not prepared mentally for either event. But she bounced back both times, winning a world title in 2008 and Olympic bronze in 2012.
Now employed as USA Wrestling’s assistant national coach for women, Chun is looking forward to sharing the wisdom she has gained with a wider audience in Argentina next year.
“Coming from Hawaii to Sofia in Bulgaria for my first world championships (in 2000) I was in awe of all these other nations that had female wrestling and I was feeling like, ‘What am I doing here? Do I even belong?’ I had that fear,” Chun told buenosaires2018.com.
“I will share (with the YOG athletes) what I learned from that, remind them that they have earned the opportunity to be there and represent themselves and their families and their nations with great honour, and that all that anyone would ask of them would be to do their best.
“It didn’t go very well for me in Sofia, I didn’t manage to overcome those feelings, but as the years went on it got better. Had I known then what I know now, that would have helped me. If someone could have told me some encouraging words of advice prior to going out on the mat, maybe that would have made a difference.”
Although Chun won the 48kg title at the world championships in Tokyo in October 2008, she had suffered another dose of heartbreak two months earlier at the Beijing Olympic Games, where she lost her bronze-medal match with Irini Merleni.
“The worst feeling is walking off the mat knowing that you could have done more,” she said. “That happened to me in my final match at the 2008 Olympics. I was so upset, knowing and wishing that I could have done more, wishing that I could do it all again. Knowing it would be another four years until I’d get that opportunity again.”
When that chance did present itself at London 2012, Chun made no mistake – avenging her defeat by Merleni in Beijing, beating the Ukrainian for bronze this time. But it did not come easily.
“I battled with it mentally, the pressures of it all,” she revealed. “It takes practice and you have to be reminded to just enjoy it and show the world what you have, and to understand that you are enough.”
At Buenos Aires 2018, Chun and the other ARMs will work with the athletes through workshops, activities and informal chats. Having already taken part in a United World Wrestling programme in Peru and Georgia that focused on developing aspiring wrestlers as people, not just on the mat, Chun hopes to help the youngsters at YOG develop a wider sense of wellbeing.
“I like sharing my experiences and knowledge, of things like being conscious of what you eat, of being aware of what you are telling yourself, of the mental side of it.
“I want to help them stretch themselves and become well-rounded people. It is a great opportunity for them. I look back and think if I was their age I would be absorbing all the different cultures and languages and people you meet.”
Chun’s parents were born in Hawaii but are of Japanese and Chinese descent, something she is proud of. In a world that sometimes seems to be becoming more divided, she values the ability of the Olympic spirit to bring people together.
“Growing up we had the opportunity to retain those cultures within our family. Hawaii is a melting pop of Asian cultures and I appreciate that. I love travelling and trying to learn languages.
“It will be a great opportunity for the young people (at YOG) to meet and create friendships with people from around the globe. That’s one of the great things about sport, the best part for me.”