Canada's Carol Huynh came close to giving up wrestling after winning Olympic gold at the Beijing Games in 2008.
After achieving her ultimate goal, Huynh's desire to continue in the sport was weakened as nagging injuries took a physical and emotional toll.
“I hated it. I hated competing, I hated training,” Huynh said. “So for the last couple of years I've been trying to enjoy it and love it again. I've gotten to that point. So now it's time to get down to honing my skills and also really working on the inner strength, the inner motivation, the confidence.
“That's huge for me. That is key.”
Huynh appears to be back in top form.
She successfully defended her Pan American Games title Saturday at the Code II Sports Complex when she recorded a second-round fall on American Clarissa Chun in the 48-kilogram final.
“It's always nice to be on the top,” Huynh said.
Teammate Tonya Verbeek of Beamsville, Ont., settled for silver, dropping a three-round decision to American Helen Maroulis in the 55-kilo final. Calgary's Justine Bouchard lost her quarter-final bout in the 63-kilo category to Argentina's Luz Clara Vazquez.
Huynh, who grew up in Hazelton, B.C., and is now based in Calgary, said the support of friends, family and teammates helped bring her competitive spirit back. The thought of representing her country at another Olympics also helped fuel her fire.
It wasn't easy to get back in the wrestling zone after reaching the top of the Olympic podium. A neck injury in early 2009 left her drained and sapped her competitive energy.
“I almost quit because of that,” Huynh said. “It was just so painful I couldn't even train. So I took a lot of time off and I finally started to get better.”
She hurt her knee later that year and missed four months of action. Aside from the usual aches and pains, Huynh is healthy again and is making a real effort to enjoy herself.
“I had to remember why I was doing this sport from the beginning,” Huynh said. “I love the feeling of competition.”
Huynh started off slow against the American in front of a lively, near-capacity crowd on Saturday night. Assistant chef de mission Curt Harnett was cheering her on along with other team officials among a pocket of flag-waving Canadian fans.
Many competitors were coming in off the high of last month's world championships in Turkey, where Huynh finished fifth. The Canadians, who don't train to peak for this event, are gearing up for the 2012 qualification trials this December in Winnipeg.
The Pan Ams is not a big competition for some athletes, while others pop like they've won a world title when they win. The air was thick in the humid 2,100-seat venue and the faint smell of sweat lingered throughout the competition.
The host country loves its wrestling — amateur and professional — and fans were fired up for the bouts, no matter who was on the mat. And just in case they didn't know when to applaud, an image of the Pan Am mascots often appeared on the video board with the caption: “Aplausos! Clapping!”
Huynh, who won gold at the Commonwealth Games last year in New Delhi, sees this event as a springboard for what she hopes will be a successful Olympic title defence in London.
“For me, I always want more,” Huynh said. “It's never good enough. Sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes that's a bad thing.”
Having won almost every major title in her sport, it's almost all gravy at this point. Huynh enjoys having a target on her back as a champion and is pleased that her drive and focus have returned.
“You have to take a step back sometimes and get a new perspective on things,” she said. “Which is what I think I've done.”
While getting back to the basics has helped reignite Huynh's passion, even she admits it's sometimes tough to stay fully motivated. She made a decision to commit for another Olympic cycle and the process has been enjoyable so far.
“Just deciding, ‘You know what, I'm going to give it one more go,“’ she said. “I'm going to see if I actually want to do it. If I enjoy it then I'll just keep going, why not?
“It's a great life, I'm doing what I love to do. I get to represent Canada at Games. It's fantastic.”