Helen Maroulis Trained With Champions To Become the First American Woman Wrestler to Win Gold
Helen Maroulis' parents almost made her give up wrestling because they didn't think there was any future in it. Now she's an Olympic gold medalist.
Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
A day after becoming the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling, Helen Maroulis was asked whether she would continue on to Tokyo 2020. The answer was a confident yes.
Three years ago, it seemed like she would never have the chance. In February 2013, the IOC Executive Board voted to cut both women's and men's wrestling from the Olympic program after Rio. The national federations unified, rallied hard, and promised to change. In September of that year, wrestling was voted back in for 2020 and 2024.
The reforms included new rules and an equal number of weight classes for men and women. Maroulis, like everybody, would have to adjust – and the rejiggered weight classes put her on a collision course with three-time Olympic champion Saori Yoshida of Japan, whom the American hadn't beaten in their two previous meetings. But on Thursday Maroulis upset Yoshida and made history.
Entering the Olympics, 75 kg wrestler Adeline Gray had gotten most of the national attention. But it's Maroulis who will leave Rio as the most accomplished American Olympic woman wrestler.
On Friday, a relaxed Maroulis explained how she did it.
By the time Maroulis got to Rio, she had made the cut from the (non-Olympic) 55kg class to 53kg only twice before – at the U.S. Olympic Trials and 10 days later for an international Olympic qualifier in Mongolia.
Even though she said cutting in Rio was the easiest of the three, she added, "I didn't sleep the night before the [weigh-in] because – my body just hurts."
The night before the competition, she didn't sleep either. "I was just so excited. It wasn't a feeling of: I can't wait to get this over with; it was more like I just can't wait to do this."
After her victory, she stayed up for a third night in a row – celebrating and doing interviews this time.
It had taken the 24-year-old Maroulis 17 years to achieve her dream, and had it not been for the Olympics, she might have never realized how good she could have become.
When she was 7, her parents told her to quit the sport after one season because there was no future in it.
A few months later, it was announced that women's wrestling would be added to the Olympics in 2004.
"So my parents came back to me. I'm 8 and they're like, 'Well, I guess you might have a future. Do you want to keep doing this?' But it was still going to be the same process, training with boys.
"In Maryland, they didn't have girls wrestling. In order to get better, I had to break boundaries. I had to train with the guys. I had to earn their respect every day; I had to earn the coach's respect. Sometimes it took a lot longer than I think was necessary. We didn't know if there would be scholarships or college opportunities. To me, the only thing I realized was that this thing I loved to do got taken away because it wasn't an Olympic sport. So why not try to reach that level?"
Maroulis rose through the ranks and by the time she was 21, she earned a silver medal at the 2012 World Championships at 55kg (losing the final to Yoshida by a pin). But in 2013 when Maroulis was one of three athletes invited to train in Japan for three days, she realized how much more she had to learn.
"I got to train with [Yoshida] and Kaori [Icho, who, earlier this week, became the first woman in history to win a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal]. I didn't get a single takedown then. I was like: I have a lot of work to do, and I don't know how it's going to get done. Later that year, I lost to a different Japanese girl in a 55kg final, and after that I realized I have the heart and I know I'll work hard, but I don't have the tools, I don't have the knowledge. I don't have the techniques to figure out these girls and beat them. It was shortly after then that I met Valentin [Kalika]. He's the genius, and that was when my wrestling really took off. I think since having him as a coach, I haven't lost a match.
In 2015, with Kalika's help, Maroulis won a world championship title at 55kg.
In addition to deciding to drop to the 53kg weight class before Rio, Maroulis also scouted her potential opponents vigilantly, especially the dominant Yoshida.
Maroulis finally concluded, "She's just better at being patient. When you're used to being patient and knowing that someone's going to panic, what happens when you're patient and someone matches you in that? Then you'll be the one to panic."
In the gold-medal match, Maroulis said, "That's what I banked on. And it happened."
During the match, Maroulis also realized that she was the stronger athlete. "I wrestled her in 2012 at 55 [kg] and she felt big and strong [but] when I grabbed her arms yesterday, I was like: this is not what I remember.
"I [initially] thought it was a hindrance that they changed the weights," but now she thought, "Maybe it was a blessing in disguise. Maybe I'm the last person that can squeeze into that weight class and still keep my strength and remain bigger. I definitely just felt stronger than her."
Another key, Maroulis said, was that coach Kalika gave her perfect advice – only it wasn't a road map.
"Valentin...knows how I am as an athlete and part of that was that I couldn't have too much of a game plan. That way, I was still free to compete the way I wanted to. When she went for a headlock throw, obviously, there's no way I could have planned or prepared to get a takedown off of that. And I don't think I would have been looking for that had I been tense or trying to think of one way to beat her.
"I wrestle best when I'm free to compete."
Ultimately, Maroulis' patience and discipline prevailed.
"They put me on the shot clock and I just knew 1,000 percent that I was not going to take a shot," she said. "I'm like, I can be down 1-0 and that's okay. I'm going to show her that even being down 1-0, I'm still not going to get out of my stance. I'm not going to react to her movement. I'm going to set the pace. So starting second period, I think she knew that maybe she'd get put on the shot clock if she didn't score and I think that's why she started opening up and that's where I capitalized on that takedown."
When the chance came, she relied on years of drills, intuitively knowing how to react.
"I can't drill this step, this step, my brain doesn't work like that. For me, it's like painting on the canvas. The paints are your body parts. Just react and let the colors come together and make something of it.
"She went for something and I just felt, okay if I step back, I might get something. Then she goes for this front headlock and I thought, okay, I feel like I'm going down, so maybe I should go the other way. All of a sudden I was behind her and was like: Oh that worked. Cool, awesome, I'm happy. It's hard for me to remember what goes on in my best matches because I'm just feeling."