Chun took circuitous route to top
By Kalani Takase
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Kalani Takase
LAS VEGAS — Not many people had a weekend like Clarissa Chun. Not even in Las Vegas.
Chun, a 26-year-old from Kapolei, is Hawai'i's newest Olympian after she won the women's freestyle wrestling 105.5-pound division at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Wrestling and Judo.
A year ago Chun rededicated herself to the sport that she loved and a coach that saw a world of potential in her.
However, the 1999 Roosevelt graduate began the journey that will take her to Beijing long before that.
Chun took up judo at the now-defunct YBA Judo Club in Honolulu when she was 7. It wasn't until her junior year at Roosevelt that she began wrestling.
"I was actually on the swimming, water polo and judo teams," said Chun, who qualified for the state swimming championships as a sophomore. "I was a sophomore and it was kind of heartbreaking to see freshmen winning, you know. It was hard for me."
Before girls wrestling was added as a high school sport, it was not uncommon for girls to wrestle on the boys team, Chun said.
"Wrestling was something new, so I just thought I'd try it out and I loved it from the start," she said.
Chun, who is the first wrestler from Hawai'i to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team, also captured a state title in 1998, the first year girls wrestling was a sanctioned sport.
After winning state titles in her junior and senior seasons, Chun took a leap of faith that led her to Marshall, Mo., nearly 4,000 miles from home.
She accepted a partial scholarship from Missouri Valley College, which was starting a women's wrestling program.
"They sent me a scholarship packet in June," Chun recalled. "Prior to that I didn't plan on going anywhere for wrestling. I mean, I had no idea about freestyle wrestling."
Missouri Valley presented a unique opportunity.
"The timing was perfect. If that program didn't open up at that time, who knows if I would have been here right now," Chun said.
After three years at Missouri Valley, Chun made the move in 2002 to Colorado Springs, Colo., home to the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
Women's wrestling had just gained Olympic recognition, in time for the 2004 Summer Games and Chun immediately set her sights on Athens.
"They had a training camp in May. Just to see basically who was serious about the program," Chun said. "I filled out applications for residency and I moved in June."
Like many athletes, Chun experienced her share of heartbreak, none worse than losing in the finals of the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
"I've been competitive since I was 7," Chun said. "So I never like to lose, but that was tough."
Training and living at the OTC took its toll, too.
"When all you do is train; things can get stagnant," Chun said. "There are a lot of people, all with the same goals, who are all serious about training."
Despite experiencing her share of success — she won the University Nationals in 2001, 2003 and 2004 in addition to another gold at the 2006 U.S. Senior Nationals — Chun wanted more.
"I didn't do so well at the 2007 World Team Trials," she said. "I knew that I needed to change something."
That's when she got reacquainted with Keith Wilson.
"He actually has been coaching me since 2002, but I totally committed myself to training with him this past year," Chun said.
Wilson, a volunteer coach at the OTC, runs the Colorado Fight Factory, a mixed martial arts training facility in Colorado Springs.
"When I first saw her, she was this little girl," Wilson recalled. "She was undefined physically and she hadn't been in a world class level of sport. I knew she had the potential to be great then.
"I told Clarissa from day one that she has natural, God-given ability and there's not a girl that can hold a candle to you. You've been given a gift, but you're wasting it if you're not using it the right way," Wilson said.
As her training continued, the improvements came.
"At (senior) Nationals (in April), she almost put everything together," Wilson said. "There she got a taste of it. She believed for the first time that she was good enough."
Chun finished fourth at the tournament, losing to Patricia Miranda, who was also the wrestler that beat her for the Olympic berth in 2004.
"You know to Miranda's credit, if not for her, Clarissa wouldn't be at that level now," Wilson said. "(Chun) had to raise her game just to compete with Miranda. She pushed her to excel her game and made her work on the areas where she was weak."
Despite beating Miranda just once back in 2002, Chun's confidence was sky-high heading into the trials and it showed in her early matches.
Chun disposed of contenders such as Sara Fulp-Allen, the 2005 Senior National champion, and Mary Kelly, who was ninth at the 2006 World Championships, to set up a rematch with Miranda in the best-of-three finals. Chun only needed two.
"It's been coming. She's been close. Sometimes when a bad call happens, Clarissa used to get flustered and loses focus," Wilson said. "It finally stuck. She beat one of the top competitors in women's wrestling in the world. She was a step ahead the whole time; she brought it to a different level. She's ready now to compete on the international level, in the big show in the Olympics and she proved that this weekend."
Chun, who was swarmed by the media following her upset victory, calls the experience surreal.
"I'm still in shock," she said. "I still can't believe it. I want to watch the video because half of me doesn't even know what happened."
NAKAMURA MAY RETIRE
Grant Nakamura, of Pukalani, Maui, went 2-2 in the men's freestyle wrestling tournament, advancing to the consolation semifinals before an elimination loss to Vic Moreno.
"It's a tough tournament, just a grind, real tough," said the 24-year-old Nakamura, who is contemplating retirement.
"I think I'm done," he said. "I'm going home. I don't know if I can wait another four years for a shot."
SWANSON FIRST ALTERNATE
Honolulu's Melinda Swanson won two matches and lost another to finish as first alternate in the women's heavyweight (over-171.75 pounds) judo division yesterday.
Swanson, who is from Hawai'i Tenri Judo Club, drew a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed, then beat third-seeded Nanoushka St. Pre in the semifinals to set up a final against No. 1 Heidi Moore.
Moore pressed Swanson to claim the top spot.
"I was still a little disappointed," Swanson said. "Especially because I was kind of training specifically for (Moore)."
However, because the U.S. did not qualify the weight for the August Olympics, Moore will only go to Beijing on a "contingency basis." That is, if there are enough declinations from qualified countries, a spot would open for Moore. If she cannot attend, Swanson would then replace her.
Also, Pearl City's Andrew Hung advanced to the semifinals of the men's 178.5-pound judo division before falling to No. 1 seed Travis Stevens.
"I was just trying to circle away from his power hand and I thought I was doing OK, but the one time I didn't is when he caught me," Hung said.
Reach Kalani Takase at email@example.com.