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Clarissa Chun’s bronze ends U.S. medal drought in wrestling

Wrestler ClarissChun celebrates Wednesday after winning bronze 106-pound freestyle weight class. | Lars Baron~Getty Images

Wrestler Clarissa Chun celebrates Wednesday after winning bronze in the 106-pound freestyle weight class. | Lars Baron~Getty Images

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Updated: September 10, 2012 1:49PM

LONDON — This is not horseplay in the backyard with your older sister. This is lock up and look out.

Yeah, they have their hair in ponytails, but there’s nothing feminine, graceful or fun about women’s wrestling. Unless you win.

Maroi Mezien of Tunisia was ahead 4-0 over Isabelle Sambou of Senegal in the 106-pound wrestle-back Wednesday when she dove for a leg, then got spun around, lifted and pinned. Lying on your back, unable to move, with a mean, sweaty woman who doesn’t speak your language lying atop you cannot be nice.

We’re talking busted noses, cauliflower in the ears, not the sauté pan. If I said some of the women did not look like women, I would be stating a fact, not a prejudice. Canadian Martine Dugrenier, a 139-pound wrestle-back winner over Henna Johansson, has short black hair and the shoulders of a linebacker. Call it the ‘‘new’’ feminine, if you will. Just don’t mess with it.

The U.S. women were hoping to boost American wrestling morale after the men’s Greco-Roman team failed to produce an Olympic medalist for the first time since 1976.

Clarissa Chun, the daughter of a Chinese father and Japanese mother but a full-fledged American citizen from Hawaii whose first language is near-surfer-dude English, was considered perhaps the best hope of all in the 106- pound freestyle weight class. But Chun lost her second match of the tournament to world champion Mariya Stadnyk of Azerbaijan and had to make her way back, hat in hand, so to speak, through what’s called the ‘‘repechage.’’

She came out for the first of the comeback matches feisty and short against her much taller, more slender foe (like you can be hefty at 106 pounds), Poland’s Iwona Matkowska, a former bronze medalist at the world championships. Chun, maybe 4-11, pinned Matkowska in the second round after being down 1-0.

The tiny lady with the stadium-sized smile had little time to celebrate, however, because in a half-hour she had to wrestle Ukraine’s Irini Merleni, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist, for the bronze. Merleni had been chilling for a spell.

That’s the penalty for losing early: exhaustion.

But Chun, a school teacher by trade, is not without her skills. Quick and strong, she learned about never giving up when she was the surprise winner of the 2008 world championships in Tokyo. That was huge, but so was winning the high school state championship in Hawaii back in 1998, the first year girls wrestling was sanctioned.

Feisty may have been invented to describe Chun, who started taking judo at 7.

What kind of girl will be good at wrestling? I asked her later.

‘‘The one who has the competitive juices,’’ she said. ‘‘That grit, that fight. Sometimes it’s going to be a battle out there. Like the Ukrainian — I actually expected more hair-pulling from her. But, yeah, wrestling is tough!’’

She was talking about Merleni, whom she had just fought. And she said the word ‘‘tough’’ with an immense smile, meaning that tough and joy go together.

They didn’t seem to go together early in that bronze-medal match, with Merleni getting warned about hair-snatching and Chun getting warned about some herky-jerky head grab.

But Chun took Merleni down for a point just as the first two-minute round ended, and, as Chun’s coach, Terry Steiner, had noted, ‘‘The difference between gold and not placing is so minimal — two millimeters this way or that way. You never know what that difference is.’’

The match was dangling by a thread. It was a chance for Chun to make up for losing the bronze-medal match at the Beijing Games and finishing fifth. The millimeters were in play.

And in the second round, Merleni grabbed Chun from behind, and the crowd roared in anticipation, but quick as a mouse, Chun flipped her over, and — just like that — she had won. The official score was 1-0, 3-0, but it might as well have been 1,000-0.

Chun jumped into the grizzled Steiner’s arms and clung to him like a tree frog. Then she grabbed an American flag and ran around the mat. Then she went from judge to judge, coach to coach and shook their hands as if they were the victors. For the United States and its dry wrestling cupboard, it was a small moment of fulfillment.

‘‘That’s just me,’’ she said, drenched in sweat but almost uncontrollably ecstatic. ‘‘I wanted to shake hands with everybody in the stands.’’

So tiny, so … gritty. So great for gals.

‘‘I wouldn’t want to force anyone into it,’’ she said when I asked her if she had a message for little girls. ‘‘It comes from within. But if they have the passion for it, they can soar high, they can fly and get to the top.’’

And pin somebody en route.

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