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. U.S. wrestlers failed to win a medal in 2008 in Beijing.
The four women on the U.S. wrestling team have been conducting some of their training sessions on the mats at the University of East London. Their training partners often include their coaches, who are men.
Terry Steiner has been the U.S. coach for all three Olympics in women’s wrestling. “It’s a sport within a sport that’s not generally accepted and we’re still working on it," she said. "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.”
Two of the U.S. women wrestlers on the London Olympics team, Clarissa Chun and Ali Bernard, competed at the Beijing Games four years ago, and both placed fifth in their weight classes.
Chun, who is 30, competes in the lightest weight class, 48 kilograms. She started out by doing judo. Then she 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 said.
Bernard, who is 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," she added. "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. 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]," she stated. "And I’m like, well, you know, maybe it’s like negative encouragement.”
The fourth U.S. wrestler is 27-year-old Kelsey Campbell, 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. 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,” Campbell stated.
All the wrestlers on this U.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.