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Wrestling gold medalist Carol Huynh learns to believe in herself again

Carol Huynh won Canada's first gold medal of the Beijing Olympics when she defeated Chiharu Icho of Japan in the women's 48 kg freestyle wrestling match.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Prior to the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, Carol Huynh worked hard to develop the confidence she felt she needed to become an Olympic champion.

Learning to believe in herself helped carry her to the top of the podium.

Huynh's gold medal in women's wrestling was Canada's first of the Beijing Games, coming as fans back home were starting to hit the panic button over the country's medal drought in the first week of competition.

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While she went into the Olympics as an underdog in the 48-kilogram division, she left China on top of the world.

But in the nearly four years since, the 31-year-old Huynh has struggled to maintain that confidence.

That battle, combined with painful neck and knee injuries in 2009, prompted her to question whether she wanted to continue competing. There was a time when she wasn't sure she'd even stick around to defend her Olympic title this summer in London.

"I think after Beijing I let that all go and with the injury on top of that, my confidence level was really low," Huynh said in an interview at the national championships earlier this year. "Belief in myself was shot."

The good news is Huynh has rediscovered her mojo and will be on the mat in London. But it wasn't easy. It took a lot of hard work and plenty of soul-searching.

"I've really had to work on that quite a bit," she said of regaining her confidence. "It takes a while. It's something that I think a lot of people take for granted. You really have to work on that on a daily basis."

Canadian women's coach Leigh Vierling says Huynh was putting a lot of pressure on herself after winning the gold.

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"I think she felt the target of the Olympic champion," he said.

Huynh also says she had become bitter after winning the gold medal, though it's hard to imagine today given her seemingly upbeat attitude and effervescent demeanour. It took "an epiphany" during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver to make her realize she needed an attitude adjustment.

Something twigged in her when she was doing an interview and the conversation turned to sponsorship and how some were predicting that endorsements for a Canadian medallist in Vancouver could run into the millions.

"I was like 'That's not going to happen"', she recalled. "After that night I was like 'Wow, I've gotten so bitter,' and that just totally woke me up. I'd been so negative, so bitter."

She admits now that she had become very cynical.

"I didn't like that," she said. "My life was not going the way I wanted it to go and it was because of my perspective on it."

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After the interview in Vancouver, Huynh was determined to change that perspective.

"That's what's helped me to get over all that pressure, get over those expectations and not take myself so seriously," she said.

During that time of uncertainty about her future, Huynh also had the support of teammate Tonya Verbeek. A two-time Olympic medalist, the Beamsville, Ont., native was also having doubts about whether she wanted to keep competing.

In the end, the 34-year-old Verbeek also decided to hang on for one more shot at Olympic glory.

"We were there to support each other no matter what we decided," said Huynh, who along with Verbeek punched her ticket to London at the national trials in December. "But I think having her still around helped me to be still around. When you have somebody going through the same thing, it kind of makes things a little easier."

Verbeek won bronze on the same day Huynh won gold in Beijing. She said her teammate was a big inspiration.

"She's such a good person," Verbeek said. "Everyone remembers her moment at the Olympics, myself included. I was up right after her."

Verbeek at 55 kilograms and Huynh at 48 kilograms will lead a women's team in London that also includes Montreal's Martine Dugrenier at 63 kilograms and Calgary's Leah Callahan at 72 kilograms.

Vierling says all four women have a shot at the podium.

"We did it before," he said of Canada's two medals in Beijing. "That doesn't mean we're going to do it again but I sure know we can."

Huynh, who has fully recovered from the debilitating neck injury, is coming off a fifth-place finish at the 2011 world championships and a gold medal at last year's Pan American Games. Verbeek was a silver medallist at both events.

Dugrenier is a former world champion who finished fifth at the 2008 Games.

Huynh is especially happy for Callahan, her teammate at the University of Calgary Wrestling Club who will make her Olympic debut.

While Huynh's gold medal alone was big news in Canada, people also couldn't get enough of her story.

Her parents came to Canada as refugees from Vietnam, raising Huynh and her four siblings in a tiny northern B.C. town.

Working various jobs to support the family before buying their own motel in Hazelton, her mom and dad instilled in her a strict work ethic.

After winning in Beijing, everyone wanted to know more about her family history and all the attention took her aback at first. It was even harder for her parents, who were in China to see their daughter compete.

"It took my parents off guard a lot more than me," she said. "My dad is really private and he's really shy so he didn't really want that."

London will be the last time her family — she's been married to former wrestler Dan Biggs since 2005 — will have the opportunity to see her compete on the Olympic stage. She insists London will be her swan song.

She hopes to be coaching by the time the 2016 Rio Games roll around and her ultimate goal is to coach and work as a sports psychologist.

First, she'll attempt to return to the Olympic podium one last time. And while she's struggled to believe in herself, she's also gained more wisdom in the last four years.

"I've been trying to learn how to deal with that pressure and those expectations over the last few years," said Huynh, who recently forfeited a World Cup match for what her coaches said were "precautionary" reasons. "But you know, I'm also going into this tournament with a lot more experience and knowing what to expect."

Vierling says the old Carol is back.

"She's enjoying it," he said. "I just see the Olympic spirit back in everything she's doing."

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