Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Spotlight: Melissa Chun
“Come join the crew team.”
If Melissa Chun hadn’t seen a flyer recruiting for the rowing team all those years ago, perhaps none of this would have happened.
2006 NCAA national champion. 2016 USRowing national accolades. Referee for the past six NCAA Rowing Championships. Youth coach in the Bay Area. The list of honors and achievements goes on, with more undoubtedly on the way.
“I initially joined just to make friends,” Chun says of her introduction to the sport. “Most schools don’t have rowing, at least back then when I first started, so it was kind of a unique opportunity. I got a flyer that said ‘come join the crew team’, and I decided to do it on a whim.”
Sometimes, joining things on a whim can be rewarding in more ways than one. As it turns out, this was just the beginning of an unlikely story for a future fixture in the rowing industry. After four years of leading teams as a coxswain for her high school program based at the Peninsula Aquatic Center, Chun not only made a whole bunch of friends, but received an opportunity that was nowhere near her radar just a few years prior: collegiate rowing.
In 2005, Chun joined the University of California’s rowing program and became a key member in the Bears’ lineup. The blue and gold weren’t just Pac-10 champions in 2006 — they were the NCAA Division I national champs, with Chun as the coxswain for the Varsity 4+ team.
“As a collegiate rower, winning (Conference) championships was definitely a highlight,” Chun says. “Each step of the way, I knew it was a sport that involves a lot of commitment. So I’m commitment-minded, but a lot of it isn’t forever and it’s transformed over the years for me.”
'Should I stay or should I go?' is a question plenty of student-athletes — particularly rowers — ask themselves when their time competing nears its end. It’s safe to say that Chun has found ways to stay.
After graduating from Cal, Chun’s next move in the rowing world began at the Jack London Aquatic Center in Oakland, mentoring middle and high school students as a coach on the shores of the East Bay. But her rise to fame in the rowing world came in her endeavors as a referee.
“For the people who graduate from college, the call to action should be to find ways, even small, to give back or expand our sport to everyone,” Chun says. “There’s a lot of great values that I’ve learned which career wise, I’ve passed on to myself and others. To my old self, I’d say find new ways to continue giving back to others and remaining involved.”
In 2016, Chun was named recipient of the Joan Zandbergen “Mama Z” Award, given annually to a USRowing official who has “demonstrated sustained superior performance during the course of their career.” She has also served in numerous leadership roles as an influential voice for Norcal Crew and USRowing.
Honors aside, Chun’s pursuit of expanding accessibility to the sport, along with diversity within it, has always been a key component of her rowing ambitions. In 2006, she attended the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Finding Leaders Among Minorities Everywhere (FLAME) program. Today, she hopes to inspire Asian-Americans and other minorities in sports as someone who has made a significant impact in a community that is growing more and more inclusive by the day.
“I’m here to serve athletes,” Chun says. “It’s not about me. It’s about them. But for the Asian-Americans or people who have feelings of otherness, to see someone… that I’m here too, it’s important to represent people in leadership positions.”
On May 16, Chun served as the lead of officials at the 2021 Pac-12 Rowing Championships at Lake Natoma. Two years ago, she was the deputy chief at the same event. It’s a familiar setting for a seasoned veteran in her field — waking up before the sun rises, greeted only by the sounds of birds, boats on the water, and more often than not, the latest hit in pop music to get the adrenaline pumping.
“I’ve been very fortunate to travel and I think from a pure officiating standpoint, getting to know people on a deeper level,” Chun says. “Asian-Americans, even in rowing, we’re not a monolith. We’re all different, diverse and you can definitely see that especially on the officiating side, people come with complex and different backgrounds.”
It’s no surprise that Chun works exceptionally well with all people involved in professional and collegiate rowing operations. Coxswains often serve as the coach or the team’s right-hand individual leading strategy and investing time into guiding a team physically and mentally on and off the course. Now in her role as a lead referee on the West Coast, Chun embraces the influence she holds in uplifting others as an Asian-American woman.
“As a referee, my most important message as an Asian-American female in the Pac-12 is that representation matters, and it matters in places of decision-making and authority,” Chun says. “To have (Pac-12 assistant commissioner) Cheryl Wong, an Asian-American woman, making decisions… it’s amazing.
Moving forward, Chun has taken the first step to expanding her horizons by becoming an internationally licensed referee for World Rowing. Not bad for someone who came across a well-placed flyer two decades ago and began an unforgettable journey.
“I think rowing changes lives, and giving access to people who think that they could never be a part of it, deep down, would be an amazing passing down of knowledge and opportunities,” Chun says.