Meet Clarissa Chun, Iowa’s women’s wrestling coach and a longtime women’s wrestling trailblazer

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Clarissa Chun walked into Carver-Hawkeye Arena smiling ear to ear. She sat down and shared stories. She’s been to Iowa City many times — competitions, camps, etc. — but now she’s an official member of this wrestling-crazed community.

Chun was formally introduced as the first head coach of the Iowa women’s wrestling team on Friday afternoon. Her hire comes less than two months after the University of Iowa became the first Division I Power 5 school to add a women’s wrestling program.

“I’m at a loss for words, honestly,” Chun said. “Since the announcement (on Thursday), I’ve just been overwhelmed with support and love from the community — the wrestling community and the Iowa community.”

Her first official day on the job is Feb. 7, 2022. Chun still has duties she wants to fulfill as an assistant coach at USA Wrestling, a position she’s held since 2017. She’s helped lead the U.S. women’s freestyle national team to incredible international success in that role.

Consider: Between 2013-16, the U.S. won 10 medals total in women’s freestyle at the world championships, then won 17 between 2017-21, including seven at the 2021 world championships. Even more, the U.S. had only ever won five total Olympic medals in women’s wrestling between 2004-12, then won four in Tokyo this summer.

“Clearly she knows wrestling,” Iowa deputy athletic director Barbara Burke said. “She's been coaching at the highest level. She's developed Olympic champions. If she can do that there, I'm confident in her ability to do that here.

“It was about the fit for Iowa, and she loves the Iowa brand. She understands the importance of wrestling in this community.”

On Friday, Chun raved about her experiences with the Iowa wrestling community. She was here for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, when she beat Alyssa Lampe in a thrilling three-match series in front of a record-shattering crowd at Carver. She went on to win bronze in London that summer, but the passionate wrestling fans left an impression.

“The next day, I had breakfast, and I couldn't even tell you the name of the breakfast joint,” Chun recalled, “but a nice guy came up and congratulated me. He was very knowledgeable about wrestling and talked to me about my match and whatnot.

“He ended up buying my breakfast without me knowing. I didn’t find out until I went to pay. That just doesn’t happen anywhere else that I’ve been. There’s no better place than here to get it going.”

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Clarissa Chun listens during a news conference announcing her as the head coach for the women's wrestling program, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

That passion for wrestling is what piqued Chun’s interest when Iowa posted the job opening last month.

The Iowa men’s wrestling team has its own storied history, of course, with 24 NCAA team titles, the latest coming just last year. The Hawkeyes have led the nation in attendance every year Tom Brands has been the coach, and this year’s season tickets sold out two weeks before Friday’s season-opening meet against Princeton.

“Clarissa Chun has charisma. She has credentials. She has championships,” Brands said. “She commands respect and the wrestlers that come to school here are going to love her.

“Gary Barta and Barbara Burke said from the beginning that they would target the best person for the job and that’s exactly what they did. This is a big deal for the University of Iowa.”

Iowa women's wrestling coach Clarissa Chun is introduced to fans during the Nov. 19 Iowa vs. Princeton men's wrestling dual at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

But Chun was also drawn to the opportunity to author another exciting chapter in her own wrestling life.

She’s been a trailblazer at virtually every step of her wrestling career. She was Hawaii’s first girls wrestling state champion in 1998, the first year Hawaii offered girls wrestling as an official sport. She went on to wrestle at Missouri Valley, which was the first college in the U.S. to offer a women's varsity wrestling scholarship program.

Chun quickly became a contender on USA Wrestling’s women’s freestyle scene, finishing as a world team trials runner-up four times, from 2000-03. The next year, the Olympics added women’s wrestling. She made two Olympic teams, in 2008 and 2012. She also won four U.S. Opens, made five world teams and won a 2008 world title.

“Clarissa’s credentials speak for themselves,” Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said, “as a competitor and as a coach.”

Chun said she would draw on that experience when building her own program in Iowa City. Before Friday’s introductory press conference, she had already called her old coach at Missouri Valley, Mike Machholz, to talk about starting a program from scratch.

She has also witnessed firsthand the rise of girls and women’s wrestling in America. In 1998, when Chun first won state, less than 2,000 girls wrestled nationwide, according to stats kept by the National Federation of State High School Associations. In 2019, more than 21,000 girls wrestled around the country.

This past summer, the U.S. also won women’s freestyle team titles at the Cadet and Junior world championships. Between both tournaments, U.S. women had seven world champs and finished with 12 total medalists — and many of those girls will be in the recruiting pool that Chun will target once she starts.

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

“Back then, we made shirts that said, ‘Girls Play Volleyball, Boys Play Basketball, Men Wrestle.’ I’m sure a lot of us saw those shirts. But now women wrestle too, and they have an opportunity to come to Iowa. The crown jewel of wrestling is right here.”

Other challenges await, like hiring a staff and recruiting athletes. The Iowa women’s team won’t officially begin competing until the 2023-24 season, but Burke mentioned that current high school seniors will be able to join the program as early as next fall and compete next season unattached.

“We will work with coach and our compliance staff to make a path forward for those group of women,” Burke said. “They will be able to train and potentially compete unattached.”

The potential there is exciting to Chun. The potential of the whole thing is, really, and that's another reason why Chun could not stop smiling. Her enthusiasm for wrestling and for the tasks ahead is ultimately what solidified her throughout the hiring process.

“For me it really is the passion that she has for the sport. I think that's really important, number one,” Burke continued. “I was impressed by her passion, her competitiveness, her desire to be an ambassador for the sport of women’s wrestling.

“We do want to continue to help support girls and women's wrestling, and Clarissa is a great ambassador as we could have for our program and for women's wrestling across the country.”

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

Iowa women's wrestling coach Clarissa Chun is introduced to Hawkeye fans during the Iowa vs. Illinois football game on Nov. 20 at Kinnick Stadium.