Clarissa Chun is all smiles at the Azraq Refugee Camp (Photo/T.R. Foley)
I'm in Jordan this week providing coverage for United World Wrestling's refugee-focused efforts at the Azraq Camp close to the Syrian border.
The project is the first of its kind for United World Wrestling, who in recent years has sought to contribute a number of wrestling initiatives to developing nations around the world but had yet to enter into providing programming for displaced people. With some help from other international federations located in the area, wrestling was able to implement a project.
The project is still underway, but one of the ambassadors for this trip is Olympic bronze medalist and USA Women's National Team assistant coach Clarissa Chun. While I'm here to make a short documentary, write articles, and oversee the creation of other media assets, Chun is here primarily to give back through the sport she loves.
As such, I thought that hearing from her about this camp, women's wrestling, upcoming World Championships and more might be something the readers of the column would value. So instead of your questions, these are mine.
Hope you enjoy.
To my questions …
Clarissa Chun interacts with children at the Azraq Refugee Camp
Q: We are here in Amman and just spent our first day interacting with children at the Azraq Refugee Camp. What is your Day 1 takeaway? What was your favorite moment?
Chun: I was impressed! Especially with the guy wrestlers. We showed up in the middle of training and they had something like four days and they looked amazing. So strong. So athletic. They had like a week of training and with the short amount of time I was impressed.
I guess I would have wanted to see some more female-led interaction too, but culturally I'm not sure the protocol. I don't know how they feel about women on the mats and what they require for clothing.
Still, for me the best part was just playing with the girls. Roughhousing and kind of doing little body awareness drills, running around and playing tag. That whole moment was probably the best part. These girls were hungry for sport, or maybe just fun. And you could feel they were the sweetest, kindest kids. I mean they were offering us water. Giving kisses. Giving hugs.
You could sense their toughness, or resilience. We were off to the side as the boys practiced and they were asked to not interrupt so we tried to copy and just have fun. The whole day was full of laughter. Whatever they've gone through I couldn't tell their struggles or hardship in that moment. I could just feel them being curious. They were unsure of what we were there for, but once we mixed in they wanted more.
Clarissa Chun coaching the USA women's wrestling team at Beat the Streets (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Q: Wrestling has a way of creating positive life-affirming values. Hard work, discipline, appreciation for others are some of the outcomes. What values have you learned and what do you hope to see these children develop through this type of programming?
Chun: I think discipline. You could feel their toughness. They have that in them, but I feel like that with discipline some of them will see better futures. I want them to know the values of what's good in the world, what's morally right, what's proper. Not to learn self-defense of wrestling and apply it in a negative way. Use these lessons for something good. I don't want them starting fights and creating hardships for themselves or their families.
One thing I thought was cool was meeting one of the taekwondo girls who was a black belt and had come from a family of seven. That sport is huge here and she'd done so much. I want that for the sport of wrestling and for these girls.
Q: United World Wrestling or outside, what are some ways you or the wrestling community can assist these types of development projects? I work in media and sometimes I can be a little overwhelmed with who is doing what project and why, so feel free to speak generally or specifically.
Chun: I kind of asked myself and my partner Waylon that today. Could I be here? Could I live here and help these kids every day? I don't know.
I guess what I do know is what I feel. I feel that this is a great opportunity for them, but I imagine what my life would be like if it was flipped upside down by war. And it hurts me to feel that. I mean what is the follow-up after this? Who will come in and make this a consistent thing? Who is the person in their life to help them through this struggle?
Overall, it was interesting to have the conversation of whether you can commit to this type of lifestyle. Hopefully this isn't their forever, but I think it's tough to think about the possibility they spend their childhood here. I think that UWW and taekwondo are trying to start something positive and bring positivity into the world and I think that with some second efforts wrestling will make these types of countries and situations a priority
Clarissa Chun with her bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London (Photo/John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com)
Q: You mentioned to me a few days ago that you often get noticed in Hawaii. How does that feel? Does having that celebrity status give you hope for the future of women's wrestling? Also, is it because you wear your Olympic bronze medal from London to the restaurants and bars?
Chun: Haha. That's not me! I don't feel like I'm a star. I feel like I'm known in the wrestling community there because of what's happened on and off the mat since the Olympics. Hopefully what I can help others from Hawaii like Tiare Ikei, but I'm not home to show the moves often. I hope my journey inspires them. I do a clinic every year, some high schools and the tournaments. I enjoy it. I don't forget that being from Hawaii and wrestling are elements of my path.
I will say, it was weird going back this last time and I was like, 'Man, I'm the old person in the stands!' Wasn't that long I was on the mat and was learning and thinking about how I could wrestle more. Now I'm in the stands. It all happens too fast.
I just want them to have more opportunities, especially the girls and women in Hawaii. I hope that coming from Hawaii that some of these girls can get a college education and wrestle like I did.
Back to the refugees, though, I think of what doors could open if these kids could wrestle and get a college education on the backs of their athletic efforts. Some of those girls ... man, I just love thinking of what they can do.
I always get teary-eyed.
That's what's so good about wrestling. You don't need much to do it and there is no limit to what you can achieve.
Q: On that point, what is the best example you have of where women's wrestling was, and where it is today?
Chun: Women's wrestling in the U.S. is opening doors because more people are understanding what it's about. I was fortunate coming from Hawaii because I didn't have to struggle for acceptance so it's harder for me to say because I didn't have to fight with coaches for mat time and all that nonsense.
When I graduated, Missouri Valley offered me a scholarship. And that was a big, new deal. I think there are just more of those same opportunities available now to more people.
I actually think social media changed a lot of people's minds in the wrestling community and outside. The whole movement of strong women being naturally accepted is here now, like 'I am a woman, I am strong.' That's not something that was known or was utilized as a movement when I was in school. I always felt like there was a fight to have. We were always proud to be strong female athletes, but now there is an energy behind us all. It's like the Women's World Cup and Megan Rapinoe's speech. I have purple hair. We are White. Black. Lesbian. Straight. There is not one type of woman that does this.
Being accepted as a full human who just happens to be a woman -- that's cool.
I mean even in my family my parents are all-in for my wrestling. That maybe came from the judo mentality of all on the mat together. But my pau-pau (grandmother in Chinese) just didn't understand why I was wrestling. She thought it was too physical to put yourself through. The concept of judo seemed like a martial art, while wrestling maybe wasn't. I don't know. Maybe if she had been exposed to these strong women then her thinking would have been more accepting.
Q: Where can it go?
Chun: Everywhere hopefully. Here. The Middle East. I think the effort needs to be consistent and worldwide. I feel like some people already enjoy women's wrestling more than men's wrestling, so I think that more people opening their minds to the idea that this is all the same sport. This is all wrestling. Happy to see it start happening in the United States. To put this in focus, I know girls who in the past ten years have been rejected from training at men's programs and now those same programs have plenty of women! Takes time, I think.
Q: Seems to me that all these new women's wrestling programs need some coaches. Are you concerned about coaching education for women? What are the main issues moving forward in order to professionalize coaching?
Chun: Coaching education, period. I think that regardless of their level, these coaches can be women. But, and this is important, I think that coaching education is vital. I love taking courses, not only can I share my knowledge, but I always pick up new and important things from coaches across sports.
I feel that coaching is evolving through things like Safe Sport and concussion protocols. Overseas the profession of coaching is something you study in college, and I think that's something we need more of across even women's wrestling. Maybe all of wrestling could benefit from that education.
Another thing is that it's not good to think that only former college women wrestlers should coach. I'm excited that more women want to coach. I feel that if it's something they are passionate about they can be successful. Whether this is something they can continue to do and share their experiences, or something they learn I think that we can achieve more female role models.
Q: Tell me about Team USA's chances in Nur-Sultan and then on to Tokyo.
Chun: We have a team that can win it. Really. We have experience, young talent, and we are closing the gap within that top three. Jacarra, Sarah, Tamyra, Kayla … oh my gosh, all of them. They are all getting better at wrestling. That's the key. Watch out!