Olympic wrestler Helen Maroulis: My darkest secret that's greater than gold
- In Rio, you watched me beat the unbeatable and become the first American woman to win Olympic wrestling gold. But there is something bigger I can’t pin down.
Go ahead. Google me. When you do, here’s what you’ll see: First American woman to win Olympic wrestling gold … Stuns Japan’s 16-time world champion and 3-time gold medalist … Historic Olympic triumph recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama.”
And all of it is true. But there’s something even truer that you won’t see. It’s a secret. Something you can’t Google, until now.
Come close; I’ll whisper it to you…
Like, of everything. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of people looking at me. Afraid of being home alone. Afraid of not being enough. Afraid of my fear. Afraid of your impression of me after you read about my fear.
I know what you’re thinking. ‘Helen, you’re an Olympic gold medal recipient — the first ever to do so in your country. You had to wrestle boys to get to where you are. How are you possibly afraid?’ And now you’re judging me. Maybe you think this admission is a plea for attention. Maybe you’re questioning my true strength, or my courage. Maybe you think my accomplishment was just plain luck.
Or maybe, just maybe … you will say, ‘Me too.’
When I was a little girl, I was asked to quit every sport I ever played. Correction, my mom was politely asked to never bring me back. Countless coaches and instructors would say to her “It would be in everyone’s best interest if Helen didn’t return. Ever. Again.”
You see, I cried all of the time. Swimming? Forget it, not getting me on that high dive. Ballet? Ummm, all of those people staring at me? Never. I would stand there, frozen solid, then cry.
She’s not moving … still not moving. And now … yep, she’s crying became the repertoire for everything I attempted. Like a giant hook, my fear yanked me off of every stage, field and platform I’ve ever attempted.
That is, until one day.
I was seven years old. My younger brother wrestled, and my mom and I attended his practice. He was a little too young for the team, and needed a partner to continue. My mom, concerned he would quit, looked at me and said, “Helen, hurry! Kick off your shoes, stand on the mat, and be your brother’s dummy.”
So I did.
My tiny feet decked out with pink ankle socks sank into the leather mat like quicksand. They anchored me still as I stood there, playing the role of a dummy. To this day, I can’t tell you why, but at that moment, something was different.
I wasn’t afraid.
Maybe because no one was there to see me; after all, I was just a dummy. Or because rolling around with my little brother in my socks just felt familiar, like two siblings acting up at home waiting for their parents to yell before bedtime. Whatever the reason, I was seven, and I found the one stage where I wasn’t afraid to perform. And I loved it.
I begged my parents to let me wrestle. My dad finally conceded, and said, “I’ll let you wrestle one match. If you win that match, you can continue.”
So I did.
It was the only match I would win all year, but it was all I needed. That one precious victory cemented my dad’s promise. I now had permission to keep going.
So I did.
Despite this newfound love, my track record of bad flings with sports didn’t send my parents sprinting to the nearest Dick’s Sporting Goods for wrestling gear. Those pink ankle socks — and orange, and any other color a seven-year-old girl sported — became a staple in my uniform. Next to the other kids in proper wrestling shoes, I stood out. (Yeah, the fact that I was the only girl probably screamed a tad louder than my pink anklets).
Wrestling with boys would become the norm. I didn’t have a choice. If I wanted to succeed at my newfound love, it’s what I had to do. Growing up in Maryland, girls wrestling didn’t exist, but at seven years old, I was surprisingly unfazed. It was everyone else who had a problem with it.
When you’re a cute little grade school girl, having fun, you hear things like, “ahh, you play well for a girl.” But then, things started to change.
I was now 11 years old. When I walked into that gymnasium for the first time, the echoes of whistles and sneakers squeaks screeched silent. Their bodies froze and jaws dropped like witnesses to a car crash. They’ve never seen a girl walk into their gym before. They’ve never seen a girl in a singlet before. And other than taking down their little sister in a living room match for the TV remote, they’d never wrestled a girl before.
And they didn’t want to.
It was obvious during warmups. Coach shouted, “Find your buddy.” I scoured that gym with the panic of a last person standing at a boy/girl dance, searching for one hopeless face that matched mine. I walked over to Coach.
“[Coach], I don’t have a partner.”
He said, “Helen, you have to find your own partner.”
Desperate, I ran to my mom and said “no one will work with me.” Heat rushed to my cheeks. I felt my eyes well up. My mom knew it. She saw it in me. And in a surprisingly stern tone, she looked at me and said, “Helen, I can’t help you.”
Then she stood up, and walked out the door.
It was cold. It was callous. It was exactly what I needed.
I watched her get smaller and smaller as she left the gym. The part that I didn’t see was my mom getting into her car, sitting in the driver’s seat, and crying for two hours.
I like to think in that moment, she had my cry for me.
When she came back inside and asked what happened, I told her, “I went up to these two boys and said, ‘Hey, I’m working with you.’”
And that was it.
Boys would still take turns pummeling me, though. One by one, they would try to hurt me so I wouldn’t return. My parents grew concerned: no college programs, no Olympics opportunities, what’s it all for?
Then, in 2004, everything changed. The Committee ruled that wrestling would officially become an Olympic sport for girls. At my age at the time, my parents never dreamed I’d become an Olympian, but this ruling wasn’t about that. It was about validation. It was about purpose. I now had reason for stepping on that mat, and a shield from anyone who questioned me … like my opponent’s dad yelling “kick her ass.” Or the mom from the bleachers screaming at me “you’re a dike.” Or my high school teammate who said “I can’t wrestle you because my girlfriend won’t let me.” Yeah, I get it. Aren’t wrestling moves just foreplay to what happens in the backseat of cars? SMH.
To all of it, I now had a response. And things were good; things should have been good. But inside I was tortured, especially at night. I still often find myself staring when the darkness is too loud replaying my insecurities. They swirl in my head like ghosts in a dark room. Darkness is still the one opponent, I can’t take down.
When I lived with my parents, I kept every light on when no one was home. When I lived at college, I slept with a knife. I tried to cope. I’ve even tried medication, but it affected my desire to compete. (And did you ever Google what’s in those pills? Do you know what that stuff can do? What its done to people? What it was initially used for?)
Oh, how my mind taunts me.
Being around boys all of the time, I found myself trying to adopt their mentality. Don’t show emotion. Push through. Don’t expose weakness. I was studying men who won gold medals in wrestling. I tried to mimic their mental game. I couldn’t do it. I tried, but I just couldn’t.
Instead, I did what I do best: overanalyze.
I would ask myself after meets, ‘Why did I lose physically? How did I lose emotionally? What are they thinking? What kind of person are they? How do they deal with struggles?’
And it worked.
When I pretended to be fearless, I learned I was closing myself off to my creative side. For me, the mat is my canvas. Without fear, there is no courage. And without courage, there is no creativity. And without any of those, being on the mat just doesn’t work.
I also learned that anxiety has a well-worn passport. Mine became my travel companion: London, China, even Rio. At the Olympics, you watched me pin a champion. You saw me accept my gold. Maybe you even cried a little when I carried our country’s flag over my shoulders. I made you feel alive. But in Rio, I couldn’t breathe.
Before the opening ceremonies, I was pinned. My journal entry read:
“I can’t stop crying. I’m making myself sick. For the first time in my life, I explained to Terry [my Coach] what my anxiety was like. What it felt like to be afraid of irrational things. I was always afraid to tell him, because I was afraid he wouldn’t think I was mentally capable of a gold medal. And at the Olympics, I didn’t want to look weak.
He said that I was strong to reach out and talk to him. He also said when we are hyper-sensitive to everything, it’s our bodies way of preparing for battle.”
He was right.
After you win a gold medal, you get to do a lot of cool stuff. Like, be the first female to lead the Baltimore Ravens in a pregame locker room pep talk.
I arrived at the stadium and made my way through the tunnel. [Passing a “practice dummy,” I stopped and smirked. ‘So … we meet again.’]. I walked into the locker room and joined the pregame huddle. Coach Harbaugh rallied the team:
“I met Helen Maroulis, the gal from Maryland who we saw beat a legendary Japanese champion in wrestling. And when you beat a legend, you become a legend…”
My eyes circled the huddle. Like sizing up an opponent across the mat, I stared at their faces — stoic, fearless, exactly what you would expect from anyone about to enter into battle.
Ah, that face, I know you all too well.
My parting words to the men were this:
“You don’t have to be the best. You just have to be enough. And on that day, I was enough.”
The Ravens took the field for the first time this season. My hope was that, like me, they carried their fears and anxieties with them. I don’t know if they did. But I hope so.
See, this story isn’t about me. It’s is about expectations. It’s about assumptions. It’s about being human. I think asking us athletes to progress in our chosen sport and live a life devoid of fear is just a smidge too much responsibility to impose on one fragile human psyche, don’t you think?
Especially one as fragile as mine.
My journey brought me to a definitive realization: We live in an illusion that champions are fearless, and that any admission to the contrary is defined as weakness. While we need to believe that the extraordinary can happen and glimpses of God exist in our heroes — and believe me, we do — my fear … my deepest fear … is when another seven-year-old girl steps off the mat because feeling afraid isn’t welcomed. Or because hurt isn’t allowed. Advances of young girls in our nation and the sport of wrestling itself cannot afford to see fewer pink socks.
There’s a stigma that only tough girls wrestle. There’s a stigma that only fearless people win. Yet here I stand in front of you. In front of our country. In front of the world − distinguished by my gold − and by the overwhelming feeling that all of my fears and all of my anxieties in that moment rolled down my body with every tiny bead of sweat, one by one.
But just for now, let that be our little secret.