Chun & Iowa women are ready for biggest foe in first season: high expectations

Updated: October 18, 2023

Photo: Clarissa Chun was introduced as the first-ever Iowa women’s wrestling coach to over 70,000 fans at a Hawkeye football game in November of 2021. She and her team will begin varsity competition this fall and will host two home events: the Trailblazer Duals on Nov. 12 and the Iowa Quad Duals, Jan. 21.

By Mike Finn

It didn’t take long for Clarissa Chun to realize that she wasn’t in Hawaii anymore after she officially started her job as the University of Iowa’s first-ever women’s head wrestling coach in January of 2022.

“I was driving my car on the local interstate, hit ice and my car spun around three or four times before I ended up in the median,” recalled a now-smiling Chun.

Fortunately, the 42-year-old native of Honolulu, the car and anyone else that day was okay. But that spinning motion of nearly two years ago may pale in comparison to all the things that may be buzzing around in her head now as the Hawkeye women’s team begins its official first varsity season this fall.

Clarissa Chun 2023-24 Media Day Comments

Since being introduced to thousands of fans packed in the football stadium and Carver-Hawkeye Arena or finding herself riding in an Iowa Homecoming Parade alongside Hawkeye men’s wrestling coach Tom Brands, Chun’s biggest challenge might be dealing with all the expectations put on her.

For example, in Iowa’s advertising spot that is shown during Hawkeye football, featuring all the good things happening at the Big Ten school; included was a video clip of women’s wrestling even though they won’t even have an official match until this November.

This story first appeared in the October issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

She is also aware that Iowa is the first NCAA Division I Power 5 school to start a wrestling program in a state that ranks wrestling among its greatest interest, including its love for the Hawkeye men’s program that has won 25 all-time NCAA titles.

“Yeah, it’s a big responsibility,” Chun admitted. “But it’s no different than how we as a program try to prepare our student athletes and do the best that we can. We are going to be competitive, bring out our best and try not to put all those pressure on ourselves. We have our own high expectation and standards for ourselves. Each day we try to live that way and bring out our best selves, no matter the outcome. At the end of the day, those are our athletic department’s pillars: win, graduate and do it right.”

On October 16, the university released the official schedule, which includes 13 different competitions locations, including two home duals, the “Trailblazer Duals” on Nov. 12 and the Iowa Quad on Jan. 21. The team will once again compete in the Soldier’s Salute, held Dec. 29-30, in nearby Coralville, Iowa — the Hawkeye women competed there unattached last winter — as well the NWCA National Duals, Jan. 5-6 in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and eventually wrestle in the National Collegiate Women’s Wrestling Championships, March 8-9, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

With a talented group that includes a Junior World champ in Kylie Welker and Felicity Taylor, who won an NCWWC title in 2021 for McKendree University before transferring to her home state, the program will be expected to win.

Emerging Sports for Women update: Women’s wrestling on track for championship consideration

Chun remembers someone within the program telling her that the Hawkeyes did not need to win right away. She didn’t want to hear that.

“I want to win right away and the goal is to be national champions, absolutely,” said Chun. “It’s not only our goal, but everyone else’s and (other schools) want to take down Iowa. We are going to do everything that we can to come out on top.”

She also realizes that she is working with athletes, barely 20 years old.

Wrestling unattached last season, the Iowa women could not have any Hawkeye coaches in their corner. This included at the Soldier Salute where Kylie Welker (second from right) offered words for teammate Bella Mir under the watchful eye of Felicity Taylor (right) and Sterling Dias (left). (Iowa photo)

“They are in a very critical part of their development, figuring how who they are, what’s best for them and how to represent themselves,” Chun said. “They don’t need someone jumping down their throats because they gave up a takedown.”

Perhaps one of her greater challenges is getting Iowa fans to understand that women wrestle freestyle in college and its greatest competition will come from long-time programs from smaller schools like North Central and McKendree (both from Illinois) and King University (Tennessee); schools that have been wrestling for at least a decade before the arrival of Iowa. (Chun, who had more of a judo background growing up in Hawaii before she captured the first state title for Roosevelt High in 1998, wrestled at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Mo.)

There are 160 colleges that sponsor women’s wrestling in this country, including other Division I schools like Lock Haven, Sacred Heart and Presbyterian. Chun also hopes for other Power 5 programs to follow Iowa’s lead, especially at a time when the NCAA gave women’s wrestling “emerging sports” status a year ago.

“I’m hard on myself because there aren’t any other Big Ten programs,” she said. “That’s the landscape of where women’s college wrestling is now. There are teams that have already been built and our model is different. For example, as a Division I school, we must follow Division I rules especially when it comes to recruiting. It’s like apples and oranges, but Iowa has an amazing opportunity and resources and is a great school.

“Every school has different challenges and for some programs it means filling the arena. That’s a challenge for us. We’ve got like 15,000 seats (in Carver-Hawkeye Arena).”

Chun, who is assisted at Iowa by Gary Mayabb and Tonya Verbeek, long-time successful coaches on the international level, may be holding her first head coaching job on the college level. But she certainly has proven her merit as an athlete, especially at the Olympics where she finished fifth in 2008 and earned a bronze medal and later coached at both the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and as an assistant men’s coach at West Virginia.

She does see a parallel between what she is trying to accomplish as what she faced as an athlete when she and other women wrestlers had to deal with the comparisons between men’s and women’s wrestling.

“I lean a lot on my experiences and what I learned from coach (Terry) Steiner (the former Iowa wrestler and head USA women’s national team coach),” said Chun, who served as an assistant at the recent World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia. “He’s been such a great leader for women’s wrestling because he invested in women’s wrestling. I believe that Iowa has done the same thing where young women can compete while getting a great education.”