Olympic freestyle wrestling champion Carol Huynh was a force on the mat yesterday, easily disposing of Canadian champion Lindsay Rushton in the 48-kilogram weight class to earn a trip to the world championships this fall.
The worlds in Moscow will be Huynh's biggest event since a knee injury forced her out of international competition last year.
But the injury was a "blessing in disguise," said the 29-year-old from Calgary at the Toronto Wrestling Development Centre, where the top two women in five other weight classes grappled for a spots on the Canadian team at the worlds.
"I was really in a rut."
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Huynh became a major Canadian star, as much for her surprise victory as her moving personal story. The daughter of Vietnamese boat people raised in the B.C. Interior, she developed into a fierce competitor and won a gold medal while wearing the singlet of her birthplace and her parents' adopted home.
But after the Games, she says she heaped pressure on herself to live up to the title of Olympic champion. At one tournament, she heard an announcer introducer her as an Olympic gold medalist. She felt her chest seize - and lost the match.
"For a while I was like, wow, I'm this role model. I have to be this Olympic champion for everybody all the time."
Still burnt out from the intense 18-month buildup to Beijing; she also struggled to stay inspired. She dragged herself to practice, unsure if she even liked wrestling any more. Having won the ultimate prize, she wondered: What's the point?
"I was really negative, and pessimistic," she says.
So when a protruding disk in her neck began to bother her, and then a torn medial collateral ligament forced her out of competition last fall, she felt relieved.
She threw herself into her studies at the University of Calgary, where's now midway through a master degree in counselling psychology. She worked with people struggling with postpartum depression and work-injury related anxiety as a volunteer. A self-described homebody, she read science fiction novels and watched movies with her husband, who was happy to have her home instead of her usual three or four months a year on the road.
After a while, though, she realized something was missing. "It was fun, but at the same time … not having that same [wrestling]scene was disorienting. It's like, well, what do I do with myself?"
The Canadian wrestling scene has grown more competitive than it was before Beijing. Funding programs have targeted Canadian female wrestlers for four years of support after 2008. National team coach Leigh Vierling says a talented group of young athletes is pushing the veterans, including Huynh, two-time Olympic medalist Tonya Verbeek of Grimsby, Ont., and Montreal native Martine Dugrenier, who will defend her world title in Moscow. "We do have good depth," he says.
Huynh says she's felt challenged by this new crop of athletes since she returned to competitive wrestling last summer, although it wasn't until a practice six weeks ago that she felt excited and, simply, happy to be wrestling again.
Aside from more competitions between now and Moscow, in Huynh's immediate future is a trip to Las Vegas for some pool-side relaxation with friends. She begins her work placement next fall. As a counsellor, her plan is to eventually work with athletes on aspects of their regular lives, something she thinks her experience can relate to first hand with her efforts to find a balance between her athletic and personal life.
"Athletes are people, too," she says. "I know that sounds obvious, but there are so many things that are just part of daily life that affect your performance on the mat … from relationships to anxiety to depression and eating disorders."
She plans to be at the London Games in 2014 to defend her title, but she's not sure if there will be another Olympics in her future. "I've gotten to the point where I like wrestling again, so I'm not going to push it," she says. "I'm just going to keep going and see how it goes."