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AAPI Heritage Month: Clarissa Chun’s Japanese, Chinese and Hawaiian influences helped shape her life

by Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling

Clarissa Chun at the 2012 Olympics, with her bronze medal and carrying the U.S. flag on the mat. Photos by John Sachs,

When you think of U.S. women’s wrestling, one of the most prominent athletes and leaders has been Clarissa Chun. In fact, because of her great achievements as an athlete and coach, she will be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame on June 4. Along with Olympic silver medalist Sara McMann, they become only the third and fourth women to be enshrined as Distinguished Members.

Her achievements are amazing. 2012 Olympic bronze medalist. 2008 World champion. Two-time Olympian. Assistant National Women’s Coach for USA Wrestling. Now the first women’s wrestling coach for a Power Five institution at the University of Iowa. Anyone who knows or meets Clarissa Chun will confirm that she is one of the nicest people around as well.

As we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Clarissa Chun immediately comes to mind within the wrestling community.

One side of her family is Japanese, while the other side is Chinese. And she was born and raised on a Pacific Island, the great state of Hawaii. While she takes great pride in representing the United States in all that she does, she also has a close connection to her family heritage and the cultural lessons she learned as she grew up.

“Growing up in Hawaii, I wasn’t considered a minority because everyone is Asian, you know. There are a lot of Asians in Hawaii. When I am on the Mainland, I definitely feel like I am representing my culture,” she said.

Her Japanese heritage comes from her mother’s side. Her great grandmother came to Hawaii from Fukota, Japan. Her Chinese heritage is from her father’s side. Her great-great grandparents came to Hawaii from Guongdong province of China.

Of the two Asian cultures in her heritage, she was drawn toward her Japanese background because of her involvement in the sport of judo.

“The Japanese are the best in judo, so there is a lot of influence. Growing up, I wanted to go to Japan. We hosted judo players, from our sister clubs, often hosting athletes from Japan at our house. I never got to go there,” she said. “My grandma and my mom never kept those Japanese traditions, unfortunately. But a lot of the cultural and traditional things I know about Japan was because I went to a Japanese Buddhist Elementary School.”

She was exposed to Chinese background through her family and the others from the Chinese community in Hawaii.

“My grandma on the Chinese side spoke Cantonese. She never taught it to my dad or uncles, or me or my brothers, but I would always hear her speaking Cantonese. She still wrote and spoke Cantonese. When they came from China in Guongdong province, the people from that village took the boat to Hawaii. The men started a society, See Vai Voo Society, a fraternity organization honoring where they are from,” said Chun.

Some of her memories as a youth include Chinese traditions and cultural activities.

“My Chinese side, there were different cultural things my grandma kept, like Chinese New Year, as well as Ching Ming (in the month of April). Growing up, and still to this day my family does this for Ching Ming, you would have a feast at the graveyard. My grandma would always have duck, rice, a jabong (which is like a big grapefruit) and brandy. We would fold this paper, which looks like origami, with gold or silver foil on it. We fold it, put it in a bag and burn it at the graveyard. That represents money or wealth for those who had passed. It is a time where you celebrate with those who passed on,” she said.

While she is not a native Hawaiian, growing up on a Pacific Island and being exposed to its traditional culture also had a big impact on her development.

“I was living it every day. And in seventh and eighth grade, we took Hawaiian studies, really knowing the history of Hawaii, how King Kamehameha united the islands together. It is just understanding our state motto, to take care of the land. It was respecting the land and respecting the people. There is a way about living on the island. The history of Hawaii is utilizing what you know and the resources around you to survive. There are different cultural things, whether it is Asian or Hawaiian, that make up who I am and where I am from,” she said.

Hawaii was the first state to have an official girls state high school championships, and it was Clarissa Chun who won the very first state individual title in Hawaii girls wrestling history. It was her wrestling ability which brought her to the Mainland, when she signed to compete on the pioneer women’s wrestling team at Missouri Valley College. It is fair to say that there was some initial culture shock that came with that decision.

“There were five of us from Hawaii on the women’s team to Missouri Valley together. All five of us did not go on a visit prior to going to Missouri Valley. When we got picked up at the airport, Coach Mike Maccholz drove us to the college, about an hour and 45 minutes from Kansas City airport. He was telling us about Missouri, the Show Me State, We were driving down I-70, and got through Kansas City, and for a long while, there was just nothing. We are like, “Show Me What, Coach?’ It was great culture shock, coming from a small island, especially from Oahu, where everything is a metropolis and is pretty populated in very small spaces. Missouri was big open land in the middle of the country.”

The Hawaiians on campus at Missouri Valley became a support group for each other dealing with their new environment.

“In fall and winter, it was starting to get cold, and I had to go to the store to buy a pair of pants, or two or three or four or five to last me the whole week. I moved to Missouri with one pair of pants, because that is all I owned in Hawaii. It was just shorts and slippers (flip flops, as people call it here). The food was different from what we grew up eating. There were five of us on the women’s team, two on the men’s team from Hawaii, people on the soccer and football team. We would get together, make rice and meals in our dorms and try to make it feel like home when we were thousands of miles away,” said Chun.

Chun quickly became one of the best wrestlers in the nation while in college, and it was during that time that she had her first trip to the land of her ancestors in China.

“It was in Beijing in 2002, I believe. It was my last year at Missouri Valley College, before coming to the U.S. Olympic Training Center. We had a trip with Wade Genova, who put trips together for teams at that time. Missouri Valley College went on that trip during the summer. A bunch of my teammates and I wanted that experience. We trained with a couple different university programs and toured around Beijing. That was cool,” she said.

During her time as a U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center resident athlete, Chun earned a spot on the 2004 Women’s World Cup Team which competed in Tokyo. It was her first trip to Japan, and memorable not just because of the competition, but the time she spent there afterward.

“What I remember most was after the World Cup, Stephanie Murata, Tela O’Donnell and I stayed with (Janan’s three-time World champion) Miyu Yamamoto for a week longer. That was cool. We got to explore. She took us around Japan and showed us the culture outside of the competition. It was through Stephanie, because she knew Miyu when she lived in the USA,” said Chun.

Because of her world-class career, Chun competed often in Asia. Some of the most important competitions of Chun’s Hall of Fame career came in the homeland of her ancestors. In 2008, Chun competed in her first Olympic Games in Beijing, China, placing a strong fifth at 48 kg. A few months later, when UWW ran a Women’s World Championships in Tokyo after the Games, Chun won her World Championships gold medal.

In addition to what it meant to her and her family to compete at the Beijing Olympics, she also was able to appreciiate her heritage as part of the most important event she had ever entered.

“My name is Chinese. The Chinese team knew that and they tried to speak to me in Chinese or Mandarin. Unfortunately, I can not understand anything, except just thank you and hello. I felt like I was a little bit of a disappointment to them. It was a good experience for me. What would have really topped it off would be to come home with a medal, with the tie and lineage I have to China. It was super special to see the jade in the Olympic medal. My grandma and my great grandma wore a jade necklace every day of their lives, never took it off. I thought, “man, I want one of those.” Jade is such a representation of Chinese culture. I enjoyed the opportunity to represent the U.S. in China where my lineage came from, but beyond that, to have my family there with me. It was the first time for my family to travel overseas, and for it to be in China, that was special for me, to feel closer connected to my Chinese heritage,” said Chun.

When Chun decided to enter the World Championships after the 2008 Olympics entered, she knew the event would be in Japan. She had her best individual performance in Tokyo, capturing the gold medal to the delight of the Japanese fans.

“They knew I was half Japanese, although my name is Chinese. The fans are so uniform in their love for wrestling and the pride in women’s wrestling, which is so strong in Japan. They respect the sport. They put on a production, at a time when World Championships was not like how it is now. In 2008, they had smoke and lights. It was no different than an MMA or fighting event, which they put together for the finals of the World Championships. I felt the fans were awesome. For some they knew I was going to stay in Japan and teach English there. That added a little more eyes on me. They were very supportive,” said Chun.

Shortly after winning her World title, Clarissa took a job in Japan as an English teacher in the schools in Nagatsagawa. One of the local wrestling leaders, Mitsuyama Muruyama, the president of the Nakatsugawa Wrestling Association, was instrumental in helping Clarissa get this opportunity. She learned even more about the Japanese culture and its people during her time working in Japan.

“I knew Japan was about pride and quality in the work that they do. I knew the Japanese work hard. Seeing it first hand, with the people that I worked with, was awesome. Long days, long hours. Making sure they put out a good product. Putting out the best opportunity for young kindergarteners to get a good education. They do everything to the nine. I got there in October, and they were already practicing for a December production. Everything they had was handmade, their uniforms and their props. It wasn’t shocking to me, because that is how I viewed the Japanese. They were super accommodating to me and trying to make sure I was taken care of. They are good hosts, even though I was working for them. That is in their culture and nature, to make sure I had a great experience,” she said.

Since then, Chun has been to Asia a number of times as a USA Wrestling Assistant National Coach. One of those times was at the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which were held in August 2021. The USA women’s team trained in Nakatsugawa for their acclimation camp, then went into Tokyo with a great performance, winning four medals led by Olympic champion Tamyra Mensah Stock. With all of the different COVID-19 protocols, as well as the decision not to allow fans at the venues, it was a different experience for all involved.

“The experience was never going to be like that again. You take it as it is. The experience was more about how well our women’s program performed. I was super happy for their performance. Any time I get to go to Japan I love it. The Japanese are the most hospitable people I have ever come across. They wanted to create the best experience out of a situation that was out of a lot of people’s control. I thought they did a great job keeping people safe and holding a great event, and still try to capture the spirit of the Olympics at the same time,” said Chun.

Chun has lived on the Mainland since she left high school, although she goes home to Hawaii often to see family as well as to support the girls wrestling community there. She is a legend among the Hawaii sports community, especially among the female wrestlers. She takes great pride in the fact that Hawaii was the first state to sanction girls high school wrestling.

During Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Chun can reflect on her personal heritage and the life journey that an Asian American girl wrestler from Hawaii has experienced through the sport of wrestling.

“You don’t see too many Asians in the U.S. in our sport. I am curious about the percentage of Asian Americans in wrestling. If I think about my beginnings, I think of Julie Gonzalez, Mark Munoz and Steven Abas, who are all Filipino and also Jenny Wong. I am super proud to represent who I am, where I come from and my heritage,” she said.

Although she is very humble, Chun is aware that her success in wrestling has been an inspiration to other girls and women with Asian heritage, as well as girls who wrestle in Hawaii. She uses that situation to help others whenever she can.

“I used to grow up watching Bruce Lee movies with my dad and brother, and try to channel my inner ninja like Bruce Lee. As Asians, we get labelled certain things, like being on the smaller side. Or stereotypical Asians, like they should be good at math or whatever. I am super proud to be able to represent the Asian community. I am seeing these younger athletes at the High School Showcase or the Women’s Nationals and meeting some of them and the joy they have in their face. They see me. What they are telling me is ‘I have an opportunity to go where you have been.’ I do believe representation does matter. That makes me proud to represent the Asian American and the Pacific Island community, even though I am not of Hawaiian bloodline,” she said.