Just six months after Hawaii-native Clarissa Chun, 31, won bronze in freestyle wrestling at London 2012, she was shocked to learn that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had voted to oust the ancient sport by the 2020 Games. The good news is the decision isn't totally final yet.
We recently caught up with the 4-foot-11 powerhouse en route to the 2013 NCAA Wrestling Championships (March 21 to 23) in Des Moines, Iowa, to chat about the importance of keeping one of the event's oldest disciplines in competition.
SHAPE: What turned you on to wrestling in the first place?
Clarissa Chun (CC): I grew up practicing judo, but I transitioned to wrestling when I was 16. I'm really competitive and I wanted to win. I wasn't medaling in judo, but I knew I had a shot in wrestling—the sports are very similar. I started winning right away, especially against girls. I won a lot against boys too; strength wasn't a factor at that age.
SHAPE: How did the boys take getting beat by a girl?
CC: Some would cry. They'd get really upset when their teammates would be mean and tease them. I felt bad about that.
SHAPE: What advantage do girls have over guys in wrestling?
CC: Girls are really flexible, more Gumby-like.
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SHAPE: Was it tough competing in a male-dominated sport?
CC: Not in Hawaii; they were really good about welcoming women to the sport there. I trained with guys in my weight class all the time, but when it came to state and national competitions, I'd only competed against girls.
SHAPE: Must be hard to date? I bet guys are intimated by you.
CC: I hope not because I’m a softy too. I’m a sensitive and loving woman.
SHAPE: What do you love the most about wrestling?
CC: How tough it is. It challenges me every day. No single match is ever the same. I have to constantly find new ways to overcome adversities. Now my biggest obstacle is lobbying to keep this sport in competition.
SHAPE: Were you surprised to hear about the IOC's decision to drop wrestling?
CC: Oh yeah. When I first fell in love with wrestling, women weren't allowed to compete in the Olympics yet—it only became a women's sport in 2004 at the Athens Games—so I never thought I'd have the chance to become an Olympian. Having since gone to the Olympics in both Beijing and London, I'm definitely focused on going to Rio de Janeiro in 2016. I'll likely be done by 2020, but I want to continue fight to keep it in the Olympics for generations to come. I want other girls to have the opportunity to dream. Now that it's an option for them, you can't just take it away. I couldn't imagine the Olympics without wrestling.
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SHAPE: Why does the IOC want wrestling out anyway?
CC: From my understanding, the president of our International Federation failed to give the IOC a reason to believe that the old sport could be part of their movement to modernize the Olympics. Within a week of the IOC's announcement to cut wrestling, that same president stepped down, which was good. He wasn't helping our cause.
SHAPE: So it was a political decision?
CC: Yes, definitely. If the Olympics is moving in a direction of modernized sport, then we have to comply and prove to the committee how we can evolve too. Our interim president is now fighting to keep wrestling on board.
SHAPE: What are you and your teammates doing to help?
CC: In the U.S., we created KeepWrestlingintheOlympics.com where people can get live updates on what's going on, help fundraise for our campaign, and learn about other ways to get involved. And Olympic wrestlers Rulon Gardner and Henry Cejuda were just on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno explaining the significance of the sport in the world (watch the clip). For some countries, like Iran, Russia, India, and Mongolia, wrestling is as popular and loved as football in America or soccer in Europe. It brings people together, regardless of age, race, gender, religion, or politics. We're going to win this.