Some might say only in Canada could a story like this take place, but everywhere could it be admired.

Somewhere out there exists a shaky home video of a self-conscious young girl wrestler wearing boxy running shoes and a pair of shorts over her singlet. If found, that video is now an incredibly valuable piece of Canadiana: Carol Huynh’s first-ever wrestling match. It’s a remarkable enough story if it ends right there.

The inspirational rise of Carol Huynh (appropriately pronounced “win”), the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who built a new life in small-town Hazelton, BC, to Canada’s first-ever female Olympic gold medallist in wrestling is a story of old world and new Canada, why this country is admired by so many around the world.

To fully appreciate it, you must go back to her father, Viem, who was born in China, but moved at an early age to Vietnam where he later met and married Huynh’s mother, Mai Trinh. Huynh’s two older siblings, Ngoc and Hui, were born in communist-controlled Ho Chi Minh City before the family fled on a rickety boat to Indonesia as refugees. From there they landed penniless in Hazelton, but sponsored by the United Church, who helped the family integrate into the community. Nine months later, young Carol was the first of her family born in Canada.

At a time when wrestling for girls was just beginning to reach wider acceptance, Huynh followed her sister into the sport under Hazelton high school coach Joe Sullivan, who immediately recognized her lightning speed and agility. From there she progressed to Simon Fraser University where she became yet another international success to emerge from Mike Jones’ Burnaby Mountain wrestling factory. Huynh narrowly missed a place on the 2004 Olympic team, but still went to Athens as a training partner for fellow Hazelton wrestler Lyndsay Belisle.

Over the next four years, her focus never wavered from the 2008 Olympics. In 2005, she won her weight class at the World University Games and finished 3rd at the world championships, one of six top-five career finishes at the worlds. In 2007, she won gold at the Pan American Games and, by 2008, was an eight-time Canadian senior champion.

On to Beijing, and again, Hazelton threw their support behind Huynh, fundraising on her behalf. Huynh’s parents, three of her siblings, and her husband were all at the China Agricultural University Gymnasium in Beijing for support. It was the first time her parents had seen their daughter wrestle since sneaking in the back door of the Hazelton high school gymnasium and catching a glimpse a decade earlier.

In the 48-kg freestyle division, Huynh won her first three matches before facing Japan’s Chiharu Icho, the reigning world champion and silver medallist from Athens. Icho was the odds-on favourite, but Huynh used her relentless attacking style to score points never allowing Icho the opportunity to gain control. When the referee raised her arm as the winner, for Huynh and her family, more than just a dream was realized.

On the podium, Huynh blew kisses to her family and to any Canadian flag she could find in the crowd, while smiling and weeping as she sang Oh Canada.

In the years that followed, Huynh racked up more impressive international results. She won gold medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the 2011 Pan American Games. Four years after her Beijing triumph, Huynh won a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Huynh would say that up on the Olympic podium in Beijing she could only think about how proud she was to be Canadian. As millions of Canadians proudly beamed, celebrated, cried, or breathed a sigh of relief for the crowning of Canada’s new golden girl, all would agree the feeling was mutual.

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.