Q&A: Helen Maroulis on Defending Her Gold Medal, Difficult Path Back to the Olympics

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Helen Maroulis is a two-time world champion, and in 2016 she became the first American woman ever to win Olympic gold in wrestling. Her path back to the Olympics was made more difficult by a pair of concussions suffered in 2018 and a grueling experience with PTSD.

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Sports Illustrated: Starting with 2016, what do you remember most about that moment when you won gold?

Helen Maroulis: Oh my gosh, I just remember feeling like it was such a dream come true. And also like these blinders came off where, I could finally just relax and take it all in. I just thought about 10-year-old Helen, and 12-year-old Helen, and 13- and 15-year-old Helen, and just remembered back to who I was along the journey. I really just remember thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe that that girl won the Olympics.” And also that normal people win the Olympics. I think I put it on a pedestal for so long, and I thought you had to have superpowers and stuff. To win with your strengths and your weaknesses, to win with who and how you are, was really cool.

SI: How meaningful was it for you to be the first American woman to win gold in wrestling? Or is it more about having that achievement for yourself, regardless of who came before you?

HM: For me, I never thought about being the first because I just assumed that all the women that came before me—I thought they were all amazing; I thought they were gonna do it. And even going into Rio, I thought that all my other teammates and I were gonna win together. My teammate who I’ve lived with and trained with day in and day out, Elena Pirozhkova, she lost in the semifinals by like a point. So that’s heartbreaking. But to be the first is really an honor, and I’m very grateful for it. I take it very seriously and I think it’s pretty special.

SI: How much would you say your gold medal changed your life since then?

HM: On the one hand it obviously completely changed my life, and on the other hand my life’s really exactly the same. I think there were really cool opportunities that came up after the Olympics, and then when I got back into wrestling it was almost like the same thing all over again, just back to the grind. Really, at that point, things weren’t any different.

SI: I know you’ve been really open about your struggles over the last few years, including a story with Sports Illustrated last summer. Has that been hard for you to open up about your struggles, or does that come naturally to you?

HM: Yes and no. I knew that I didn’t want to open up about it until I was truly ready to talk about it. And at the same time, I don’t like being inauthentic, so I felt like I was keeping a secret for such a long time. So I just felt like I had to do a lot of healing and a lot of the legwork for that. And then once I felt healed and ready, I was like, you know what, I think this would be good to share. I think young kids that are going through this, or people that have had injuries, this might help. And really, the biggest thing for me is that when I was going through it, I just felt so alone, and I was just like, “Man, am I the only athlete that’s gone through this or that’s struggling with this?” And I just remember thinking it would’ve been nice to know if other people were going through that.

SI: And how are you doing now, both physically and mentally?

HM: Great. Great. I mean literally, every day feels better than the last. And I’ve just seen so much growth. I was just talking to my mom the other day about how night and day the difference is, the athlete and the person, and where I’m at physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. So just to be here and to be able to pursue this goal and this journey like this is incredible.

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SI: How did you take the news of the Olympics’ being postponed a year when you first heard?

HM: From the get-go, I felt like it was the right decision. And I honestly wasn’t surprised. Something like that, it just seemed right to me. But I think the only thing that I thought toward myself, at first I just wondered can I be healthy for a whole other year? It was actually really gonna be over a year, since I made the decision in April. So it almost felt like a year and a half of Can I be healthy again? And can I stay healthy? And once I came to terms with that, I actually realized it was beneficial for me to have that extra year and to have more time.

SI: What was this year like for you, training during the pandemic?

HM: I actually had moved home to Maryland in December of 2019. And I thought I had to retire and I was just going home to live with my family and get the medical help that I’d need. And then I was able to start wrestling in January there and make this quick comeback. So it was kind of like two, three months of wrestling there. And then the pandemic, things shut down, so it actually worked out really great for me that I had met my coach at the time. He lived at my training partner’s guest house. And my training partner had a wrestling room, and a gym and a sauna in his basement. So we would just go there like four times a week and train. And that was kind of our bubble; we didn’t do anything else. And then that was also really nice to just be at home with my family, especially during that scary time. So it really worked out well for me that I wasn’t training at a school or a university program, it was just me, my coach and training partner at his house. So it was really safe and secluded, and then I got to be with my family.

[When Maroulis spoke to SI.com in late May, she had since moved to State College, Pa. to train.]

SI: Your final match at the U.S. trials against Jenna Burkert, there was so much emotion given everything she had gone through. [Burkert’s mother had died the week before.] What was it like being in such an intense environment for a match that important?

HM: Man, that was really intense. Emotionally, physically and mentally. I knew what Jenna was coming into this tournament having gone through. As a friend and a teammate, your heart goes out for them. Sometimes it’s hard to separate that. I mean we definitely brought the battle to each other and we fought it out. And that was great, that’s what you want. You want both people to bring their best and give it their all. But after, seeing the emotions overcome her, it kind of also just overtook me as well. And it’s just crazy. You grow up with these people, you just go through so much life with them, and then you’re also battling for this one spot. It really just made me pause and take everything in and just be grateful.

SI: You may need more hindsight before you can really answer this, but how do you think that match compares to some of the more memorable ones you’ve had in your career?

HM: I mean, I feel very blessed. I’ve had a lot of really great, memorable matches in my career. When I wrestled Yoshida in the finals of the Olympics, she had also lost her father the year before, and he was her coach. And I was there at the world cup when her father passed away suddenly. So it’s not the first time I’ve wrestled an athlete or seen an athlete wrestling with all this other stuff going on. And I’ve had my own matches and tough battles with people that stand out to me. But I think the ones where you really know the person and you care about them, and you know you’re still able to battle and respect them by giving your all towards them, I think those matches do stand out the most and the longest.

SI: Looking ahead to Tokyo, what would you say is the key for you to repeat?

HM: The key, honestly for me, is just to be myself. And to just know that I’m enough. I’ve put the work in. I’m doing all the right things. I’m not afraid to ask the most of myself or be uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s just taking a step back and just trusting that I’m ready and I can go do this. I feel like it’s always a really cool spiritual, emotional journey leading into the Games. For me, there’s nothing like it where you’re really getting everything hyped up and prepared for one day.

SI: Do you feel a target on your back as a defending champion?

HM: Yes and no. On the one hand, I know people know who I am and what I’ve accomplished. But at the same time, I’ve been injured, I’ve been out of the loop. It took me a long time to really work to get my wrestling back to where it is. And so I think some people might think, “Oh, she was good,” or maybe they don’t think that anymore. Either way, it doesn’t bother me. But I wouldn’t say I’m the main target on my back in the weight class. There’s a lot of really good girls just from the world championships the year before. And we also have another Olympic champion from Japan that’s dropping down to that weight too.

[Maroulis is moving up a weight class from 53 kg to 57 kg. Japan’s Risako Kawai is moving down from 63 kg.]

SI: Do you feel pressure to do well because you came back for this? Or is there less pressure than last time, thinking like you already won a gold medal so anything else you do is a bonus?

HM: From others or from myself?

SI: From yourself.

HM: I think for myself there definitely is more pressure. And that’s just kinda like the reality of it. That’s just something that I work through and that I remind myself of. But I also don’t mind pressure; I kinda like it. I feel like I rise to the occasion. The reality is I do want this again, and I do think that I’m able to do it and I’m capable. So why not set that goal and why not go for that?

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SI: And how would you say you’re different than you were in 2016?

HM: I’m definitely more mature and more experienced now than I was in 2016. And I also feel like I’m so much stronger, mentally and emotionally, because of the things that I went through. I feel like I know myself better and I know how to trust myself more now. And I feel like I also just have a better perspective on what’s really important in life. Maybe in 2016 it was do or die and at all costs—you know, not like every single cost—but do what you can to win. This has just been more like constantly checking in with myself and my values, and what’s really important, and who do I want to become in this process?

SI: So you said you thought about walking away, and earlier you talked about having to stay healthy for a whole other year. So is this it for you? Is this going to be your last competitive tournament, do you think?

HM: Oh man, when you say it like that! I don’t want to think about that! I don’t know. If you medal at the Olympics, you’re automatically on the 2021 world team, which is in September in Oslo. So I would like to do that. And then really, it’s three years until the next Olympics, so I would have to just honestly pray and make sure that it is in my path. And if that’s something that I feel called to do, then I’ll do it. And if not then I’ll move on to the next thing.

SI: Well, sorry! I didn’t mean to put that in your head and rush you off into retirement.

HM: No [laughing], I’ve thought of it before. But when you said, like, “the last tournament” I was like oh wow, that’s crazy. This could be that. I don’t want that.

SI: What do you think will be next for you, whenever it is that you’re ready to move on from wrestling?

HM: Career-wise, I see that women’s wrestling is growing, and I feel like the sport’s given me so much, I would like to give back and coach and be a part of that. I also have a lot of other hobbies that I really enjoy. I got into salsa dancing a couple years ago, and I really love that. I play the harp. I also want to work on creating a fashion, clothing and shoe line for wrestlers. So I want to help create the culture and help set the scene, especially for female wrestlers. But I really don’t know. I’m very artistic and creative. So I’m looking for a new endeavor that would be as creative as wrestling.

SI: And how do you feel about the growth of women’s wrestling, especially in the U.S. in the time you’ve been on the national stage?

HM: It’s grown tremendously, and it’s so cool to see. Ten years ago, if you’d told me it was gonna be like this, I maybe wouldn’t have believed you. It’s just really amazing to see how far it’s come and to see that girls have opportunities now to do this. I’m excited for it to keep growing. We’re not even really as close as we could be to getting there. We’re still working for all 50 states for sanctioning girls wrestling. We just got emerging sport status for NCAA Division I. I can only imagine how much more it’s gonna grow once those things are instated. I’m excited to see that.

SI: What message do you have for young girls who want to get into wrestling, or maybe aren’t sure if they want to?

HM: I would say try it. Because you never know. I think sometimes we can judge a book by its cover and think, “Oh this sport must be this. You must have to be tough and super strong or athletic.” But I really don’t think that. I think wrestling’s like an art. And I think it’s just a really fun space where you’re constantly learning moves and countermoves. Play is so natural to us from even when kids are toddlers, right? And you have siblings, you’re kind of rolling around with them, it’s sort of wrestling. So I feel like this is so natural. Try it out, and if you love it, stick with it.

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