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US Hoping to Win Big in Olympic Women's Wrestling

Clarissa Chun of the U.S., in blue, wrestles Sweden's Sofia Mattsson in their women's freestyle 48 kilogram match at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, Aug. 16, 2008.
LONDON — Women’s wrestling was added to the Olympics for the first time in 2004. In the four weight classes, the United States won one silver and one bronze medal in Athens. After failing to win a medal in Beijing in 2008, this year’s team hopes to return to the podium.

Japan has been by far the most successful of all nations at the two Olympics where women’s wrestling has been held. The Japanese won medals in each weight class in Beijing - two of them gold - and they won two gold and a bronze medal out of four weight classes at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

The four women on the U.S. Olympic wrestling team say they are ready for the challenge. Their training partners often include their male coaches.

“It’s a sport within a sport that’s not generally accepted and we’re still working on it," explains Terry Steiner, who has been the U.S. head coach for all three Olympics in women’s wrestling.

"That takes generations, I think, to change that mindset, should women be in the sport of wrestling? And so that’s an ongoing thing with coaches and parents and administrators across the country,” the coach adds.

Clarissa Chun and Ali Bernard, two of the U.S. wrestlers on the London Olympics team, competed at the Beijing Games four years ago, but each came in fifth.

Chun, 30, competes in the lightest weight class: 48 kilograms. She started out by doing judo, then switched to wrestling when her home state of Hawaii began to offer separate boys' and girls' wrestling tournaments.

“I came out, tried it, loved it, did very well, won a state title, and loved it ever since,” she says.

Bernard, 25, competes in the heaviest women’s weight class: 72 kilograms. Her father and brother were both wrestlers and she started the sport in sixth grade. She was third at last year’s world championships and is aiming for the top of the podium in London.

“My expectations are to come home with the gold, of course," notes Bernard. "I don’t know anyone who’s not. And I feel good about it. I feel good about medaling.”

Russian-born Elena Pirozhkova, the USA’s 63-kilogram Olympian, started wrestling as a young teenager on a dare by her brother who was on his high school team. She’s now 25 and still at it.

“I really didn’t like it," she admits. "My brother told me to quit all the time, you know. But just to make him mad I kind of stuck with it, and now he’s like, yep, ’I’m eating my words right now.’ [now that she’s an Olympian] And I’m like, well, you know, maybe it’s like negative encouragement."

The fourth U.S. wrestler is Kelsey Campbell, 27, in the 55-kilo class. She won a bet with the boys when she made their high school team as a senior. Now she finds it hard to believe she’s in London for the Olympics.

“It’s crazy," Campbell says. "Like anybody who had seen me wrestle, even four years ago, anybody that knows my story or saw my journey, I mean we’re all kind of in awe of the whole thing.”

All the wrestlers on this U.S. women's team are hoping their journey here to the Olympics will be fulfilled by winning a medal. But they know they face tough competition from around the world.

Photo Gallery: Day 10 of Competition