April 20 marked a sad day in the world of wrestling. First female to compete in the WWE, stage name Chyna, passed away at her home in California. There is no word yet on the cause of death.
At one time considered the “ninth wonder of the world,” Chyna changed the game with her entry into the wrestling ring, and has led women into empowering themselves and stepping into places that were previously seen as run by men. Before she was Chyna, she was Joanie Laurer, the third child in her family growing up in Rochester. In college, she learned both Spanish and French, and contributed her language skills to the FBI; afterwards she volunteered with the Peace Corps. She became a professional wrestler in 1996, and immediately launched onto the scene – although her journey on TV and into fame was a rocky one.
Joanie Laurer actually had ties to Japan; she competed as Chyna in New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2002, and wrestled in several events for self-promotion, even fighting against Japanese giant Masahiro Chono, and helping referee other matches.
After Chyna’s back-and-forth with the WWE, and dabbling in TV roles, she subsequently “retired” from the scene and focused on herself, fitness, and being vegan. Laurer actually returned to Japan from around 2012 to teach English at a school in Meguro. On weekends, she continued training with top wrestlers in Tokyo. When asked about her experience in Japan, she said:
“I am Chyna in the Sports Entertainment world but then to go over into Japan and you just have a female wrestler Masahiro Chono that was absolutely incredible. All the training I did with Inoki and mixed martial artists … I just really loved Japan and it was so life changing [being on] the opposite side of the world. It’s a different culture, different language, [so I just went] and regrouped and [found] myself a little more.”
She returned to the States by the middle of 2015, and was working on a Kickstarter to make a movie about her experience growing up abused, and what she overcame to “fit in” with the men at WWE. Her social media presence reflects a dedicated woman keen on teaching others about fitness, healthy eating, and being mentally strong. In an interview last year, Chyna spoke about the greatest misconceptions she has faced in her career:
“I know about the truth and want to tell the story. There have been a lot of obstacles and a lot of great things that have been accomplished. I want that to be remembered because those are the important things and also just being happy and coming out the other side a happy accomplished person. I think that it is a story for athletes and for women and I think it is a good story. A story that needs to be told.”