‘This is a big deal for the University of Iowa’: Olympic medalist Clarissa Chun named UI’s first women’s wrestling coach

Clarissa Chun attends the wrestling victory ceremony of the boys 60 kg at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, Oct. 12, 2018. — Martin Rulsch/Wikimedia Commons

Clarissa Chun has left USA Wrestling, where she helped lead the U.S. women’s national wrestling team to 17 medals in international competitions since becoming assistant coach in 2017, to become the first coach of the University of Iowa women’s wrestling team. The new team, which UI announced in September, is scheduled to begin competing in the 2023-24 season.

Before transitioning to coaching, Chun had her own distinguished wrestling career, from being one of the first female high school wrestlers in her home state of Hawaii to winning a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

“Clarissa Chun has charisma,” UI men’s wrestling coach Tom Brands said in a statement on Thursday. “She has credentials. She has championships. She commands respect and the wrestlers that come to school here are going to love her. This is a big deal for the University of Iowa.”

Last month, the National Wrestling Hall of Fame announced Chun will be one of the inductees in its class of 2022. Following that announcement, Honolulu’s KHON-TV listed some of Chun’s achievements as a wrestler.

A four-time U.S. Open champion, she competed in five world championships and two Olympics, finishing fifth in 2008 when she was the first wrestler from Hawaii to qualify for the Olympics. Chun also won four Pan American Championships and was a silver medalist at the Pan American Games in 2011.

She was a four-time Sunkist Kids International Open champion and also captured championships at the Dave Schultz Memorial International, Poland Open, Open Cup of Russia, New York AC International, Vehbi Emre Golden Grand Prix, and Klippan Ladies Open.

She was a two-time Hawaii girls state high school wrestling champion for Roosevelt High School, and placed third in the 1999 USGWA High School Nationals. Chun made history when she won the first Hawaii state title in the first year that the state held an officially sanctioned tournament for girls. She also qualified for state in swimming and bowling and competed in judo and water polo.

“When I started wrestling, Hawaii was the first state to sanction girls wrestling as a high school sport. It’s such a weird thing for me to think that I’m being inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame,” Chun told the station. “To me it’s wild because I think of how there is a generation of strong female wrestlers that came before me that just never had the opportunities that I had just based on timing on when they came to the sport. So for me, it’s like, oh my gosh, there are so many amazing women ahead of me and I feel, like, such honor that I’m only one of four in the hall of fame right now as a female and I’m excited for the future of women’s wrestling.”

Clarissa Chun of the United States (blue) wrestles Azerbaijan’s Mariya Stadnik during their female wrestling 48 kg qualification match at the Golden Grand Prix of Paris, Feb. 8, 2014. — Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons

Speaking at a UI Athletics news conference on Friday, Chun recalled that when she starting as a wrestler, there was a popular T-shirt that said, “Girls play volleyball, boys play basketball, men wrestle.”

“But you know what?” she said. “Now women wrestle, too.”

UI is the first member of the Power Five, as the largest college athletic conferences are known, to start a women’s wrestling program.

“This is a historic moment for young girls, young women across the country,” Chun said. “This is an amazing opportunity for everyone who wants to come and compete at University of Iowa. This was a dream of mine when I was in high school, but that wasn’t a possibility.”

The university agreed to create a women’s wrestling team as part of a settlement in a lawsuit brought by four members of the UI women’s swimming and diving team, and two other UI students. The lawsuit alleged the university was violating federal civil rights law by consistently failing to provide female student-athletes with athletic opportunities at a rate that is “substantially proportionate” to their undergraduate full-time enrollment rate, as Title IX requires.

A women’s wrestling team was one of the opportunities for female athletes the six students suing wanted to see created, Sage Ohlensehlen, one of the plaintiffs told Little Village months before the settlement was reached.

Although UI did not admit any wrongdoing in the settlement, the university did agree to create the women’s wrestling team with a roster of at least 30 wrestlers, and to allocate the maximum number of NCAA scholarships allowed for the new team. The university also agreed to maintain the women’s swimming and diving team “for not less than seven years,” hire an outside expert to monitor whether it is complying with Title IX and pay $400,000 to cover the plaintiffs’ legal expenses.

Women’s wrestling seemed like a natural addition for UI, given its storied tradition in men’s wrestling. During the news conference, Chun called Iowa’s program “the crown jewel” of wrestling and said she understood how much work would be involved in creating a women’s program that lives up to Iowa’s reputation.

“I’m so excited to meet the challenges ahead and bring a winning program here with women’s wrestling at the University of Iowa,” she said.

Chun added, “Go Hawkeyes.”

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