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.
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 didnâ€™t get it, Ms. Campbell says: She was a girl, and wrestling was for boys.
â€śI think he thought I was the team manager or something,â€ť she explains. Â Â
Fast forward ten years, and Campbell, now 27, is one of four female wrestlers representing the United States at the Olympic Games in London. Sheâ€™s joined by dozens of other powerful women athletes from around the world who are taking to the wrestling mats inside Londonâ€™s Excel Centre on Wednesday and Thursday this week.
Womenâ€™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 womenâ€™s head coach Terry Steiner.
â€śBefore, only a couple of individuals in each weight class really had a chance to win. Now I think thereâ€™s a handful â€“ probably six, seven, or eight girls â€“ who on a good day could probably win the tournamentâ€¦. Thereâ€™s not really an easy draw.â€ť
But that didnâ€™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 isnâ€™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 itâ€™s like to have her abilities second-guessed.
An avid athlete in high school, CampbellÂ was presented with a challenge from several of her guy friends. They dared her to join the schoolâ€™s wrestling team, and they bet her that she couldnâ€™t last two weeks.
â€śI just did it â€“ kind of threw caution to the wind and went out,â€ť she says. But sheâ€™s pretty sure the teamâ€™s coach didnâ€™t take her seriously at first; witness the incident with the mop.
â€śIâ€™m sure some people didnâ€™t want me there,â€ť she adds with a shrug. â€śYou act like itâ€™s not a big deal, but it is â€“ kind of like a big white elephant in the room. I was the elephant.â€ť
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.
Itâ€™s been a long journey, and sheâ€™s excited for her chance at a medal in her competition on Thursday. But she appreciates the bigger picture as well.
â€śAs much as I want to win â€“ and I love to win â€“ itâ€™s so much bigger than that,â€ť she says, noting that womenâ€™s wrestling has come a long way since her coach first handed her that mop.
Ten years ago, there were five college-level womenâ€™s wrestling programs in the United States. Today, there are 21. Steiner, the US womenâ€™s head coach, says that girlsâ€™ wrestling is one of the fastest-growing sports in American high schools.
But still some skepticism persists. A number of high school and college coaches havenâ€™t come around to the idea that women should have a place on the wrestling mat, Steiner says.
â€śI always say itâ€™s kind of like religion â€“ you canâ€™t push it on someone, you canâ€™t force it,â€ť says Steiner, who admits that even he was skeptical about womenâ€™s wrestling before he was offered the opportunity to coach the womenâ€™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.
â€śWhat high school boy couldnâ€™t use a little more respect for a high school girl?â€ť says Steiner, who has a daughter himself.
â€śHaving a girl on a boysâ€™ team â€“ that girl may never win you the state title, but she may teach something about human potential and just respect for the opposite sex.â€ť
â€śYou canâ€™t teach that out of a book.â€ť