London Olympics 2012: US women wrestlers answer the doubters

The four female wrestlers representing the US at the Olympic Games in London all grew up wrestling boys in high school, and have faced a lot of doubters in their years on the mat.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters
Clarissa Mei Ling Chun of US celebrates after defeating Ukraine's Irini Merleni for the bronze medal of the Women's 48Kg Greco-Roman wrestling at the ExCel venue during the London 2012 Olympic Games August 8.

When Kelsey Campbell showed up at her first wrestling practice back in high school, her coach took one look at her and handed her a mop. She wanted to wrestle, but the coach just didn’t get it, Ms. Campbell says: She was a girl, and wrestling was for boys.

“I think he thought I was the team manager or something,” she explains.   

Fast forward ten years, and Campbell, now 27, is one of four female wrestlers representing the United States at the Olympic Games in London. She’s joined by dozens of other powerful women athletes from around the world who are taking to the wrestling mats inside London’s Excel Centre on Wednesday and Thursday this week.

Women’s wrestling has been part of the Olympics since the Athens Games in 2004, when the American team took home silver in a mid-weight division and bronze in the light-weight. The sport has come a long way since, as evidenced by the quality of the competition in London this year, says the American women’s head coach Terry Steiner.

“Before, only a couple of individuals in each weight class really had a chance to win. Now I think there’s a handful – probably six, seven, or eight girls – who on a good day could probably win the tournament…. There’s not really an easy draw.”

But that didn’t stop Clarrisa Chun, a Honolulu native, from taking home a bronze medal for the American team on Wednesday. After losing to Mariya Stadnyk of Azerbaijan, who went on to take silver, Ms. Chun rallied in two hard-fought matches, knocking out tenacious wrestlers from Poland and Ukraine to earn third place and her first Olympic medal.

Growing up wrestling boys

Chun isn’t easily put off by a challenge, nor are her three teammates who also qualified for the Olympics this year. All of them grew up wrestling boys in high school, and have faced a lot of doubters in their years on the mat.

Campbell, an Alaskan-born wrestler who will compete in the 55-kilogram (121 pound) weight class in London on Thursday, knows what it’s like to have her abilities second-guessed.

An avid athlete in high school, Campbell was presented with a challenge from several of her guy friends. They dared her to join the school’s wrestling team, and they bet her that she couldn’t last two weeks.

“I just did it – kind of threw caution to the wind and went out,” she says. But she’s pretty sure the team’s coach didn’t take her seriously at first; witness the incident with the mop.

“I’m sure some people didn’t want me there,” she adds with a shrug. “You act like it’s not a big deal, but it is – kind of like a big white elephant in the room. I was the elephant.”

Campbell ended up lasting not just two weeks, but two seasons on her high school team in Oregon. She went on to wrestle in college at Arizona State, and at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs after that. She earned a gold medal at the Pan American games in 2011 before qualifying for the US Olympic team earlier this year.

It’s been a long journey, and she’s excited for her chance at a medal in her competition on Thursday. But she appreciates the bigger picture as well.

“As much as I want to win – and I love to win – it’s so much bigger than that,” she says, noting that women’s wrestling has come a long way since her coach first handed her that mop.

Ten years ago, there were five college-level women’s wrestling programs in the United States. Today, there are 21. Steiner, the US women’s head coach, says that girls’ wrestling is one of the fastest-growing sports in American high schools.

Skepticism remains

But still some skepticism persists. A number of high school and college coaches haven’t come around to the idea that women should have a place on the wrestling mat, Steiner says.

“I always say it’s kind of like religion – you can’t push it on someone, you can’t force it,” says Steiner, who admits that even he was skeptical about women’s wrestling before he was offered the opportunity to coach the women’s national team.

Coaches have to see the value in making the sport available to everyone, he adds, noting that wrestling teaches important lessons about discipline, focus, and self-control. And it might not be a bad thing for the guys on the team either.

“What high school boy couldn’t use a little more respect for a high school girl?” says Steiner, who has a daughter himself.

“Having a girl on a boys’ team – that girl may never win you the state title, but she may teach something about human potential and just respect for the opposite sex.”

“You can’t teach that out of a book.”

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