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 wrestleboys 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.
Best Photos from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles while dominating his competition in a 100-meter semifinal race.
Michael Phelps at the start of the 200-meter butterfly.
As his teammates watch, Neymar scores the winning goal on penalty against Germany for the first soccer gold medal in the country's history.
Katie Ledecky of the U.S. swims in the opposite direction, far ahead of her competition, during the 800-meter freestyle final.
A birds-eye view of the beach volleyball venue at Copacabana Beach.
Team USA's Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian, Laurie Hernandez, Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas bite their gold medals during the presentation ceremony after the Women's Team All-Around Final.
Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas dives to win the gold medal in the women's 400-meter final, with Allyson Felix of the U.S. getting silver.
Ashton Eaton competing in the shot put portion of the decathlon.
Carlos Zenon Balderas Jr. of the U.S. lands a punch on Kazakhstan's Berik Abdrakhmanov.
Yana Kudryavtseva of Russia during the Rythmic Gymnastics competition.
Ethiopian steeplechaser Etenesh Diro finished seventh in her steeplechase semifinal despite running the last 800 meters of the race with only one shoe.
The view from the women's 3000m Steeplechase final.
Chinese diver Qin Kai proposes to silver medalist He Zi of China on the podium during the medal ceremony for the women's Diving 3m Springboard Final.
Action from the table tennis competition.
Ireland's Fiona Doyle competes in a heat of the 200-meter breaststroke.
You Hao of China on Rings during Artistic Gymnastics competition.
Usain Bolt takes photos with fans after winning perhaps his last individual Olympic race.
An underwater shot at the 10m platform diving pool.
Hiromi Miyake hugs her weights after winning a bronze medal in the 48kg division.
Haley Ruth Augello of the U.S. (blue) competes against Japan's Eri Tosaka during the women's 48-kg freestyle wrestling competition.
A panoramic image of the beach volleyball arena at Copacabana Beach.
Lauren Hernandez of the United States competes in the Balance Beam Final, in which she won silver.
Michael Phelps celebrates with his mom, Debbie, and fiancee Nicole after winning the 200m Butterfly final.
Doaa Elghobashy of Egypt celebrates during a Beach Volleyball match against Marta Menegatti and Viktoria Orsi Toth of Italy.
Davit Chakvetadze of Russia lifts and scores three points on Zhan Beleniuk of Ukraine during their 85kg Greco Roman wrestling title match.
Russia vs. Ukraine in the women's sabre team final.
United States' Karsta Lowe, left, Rachael Adams, and Courtney Thompson stand for introductions ahead of a women's preliminary volleyball match against China.
The U.S. vs. China in water polo.
Venezuela's Albert Ramon Ramirez picks up Algeria's Abdelhafid Benchabla as they fight during a light heavyweight bout.
Juan Matin Del Potro after defeating Rafael Nadal in a semifinal tennis match.
April Ross of the U.S. eyes a ball during a beach volleyball round of 16 match against Italy.
Allison Pineau of France shoots past Macarena Aguilar Diaz of Spain during a quarterfinal handball match.
Usain Bolt and Andre de Grasse of Canada having a little fun as they cross the finish line first and second, respectively, in their 200-meter qualifying heat.
Bronze medalist Kristi Castlin (left), gold medalist Brianna Rollins (center) and silver medalist Nia Ali of the United States celebrate after sweeping the 100-meter hurdles.
China's Chen Long celebrates after winning his badminton singles final match against Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei.
Competitors in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
A photo shows a face painted onto the helmet of China's Zhong Tianshi as she waits with other cyclists to compete in the Keirin second round track cycling event.
Sam Willoughby of Australia in a Cycling BMX seeding run
Thirty-five-year-old Anthony Ervin made history by winning the 50m Freestyle on Friday, becoming the oldest individual swimming gold medalist in the Olympics.
Patrick Constable of Australia at the Keirin competition at the Velodrome.
Jerry Tuwai of Fiji in action during a quarterfinal match against New Zealand.
The United States' Courtney Hurley reacts while competing against South Korea's Injeong Choi during the women's epee team fencing competition.
Monica Puig of Puerto Rico reacts in disbelief after winning the gold medal in the tennis singles.
The underwater view shows team Ukraine competing in the Teams Technical Routine Final during the synchronised swimming event.
Brazil's Robson Conceicao celebrates winning against Uzbekistan's Hurshid Tojibaev in a quarterfinal bout.
Simone Manuel (left) of the United States touches the wall to win gold in the 100m Freestyle Final, becoming the first African-American woman to win an individual goal for the U.S.
Players of Russia try to block the shot of Linnea Torstensson of Sweden during a handball match.
Greco Roman wrestling between Artur Aleksanya of Armenia vs Cenk Ilden of Turkey.
Óscar Figueroa after winning gold in the 62kg weightlifting event.
Germany's Erik Pfeifer rearranges the face of Clayton Laurent Jr. of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Mexico's Misael Uziel Rodriguez has his face temporarily rearranged by Bektemir Melikuziev of Uzbekistan.
Canada's Kelly Russell takes down Great Britain's Katy McLean on a day in which the Canadian sevens rugby team won over the first ever bronze medal in women's rugby.
A pair of fencers in Rio.
Elaine Thompson of Jamaica winning the 100-meter final to claim the title of the fastest woman on earth.
Katie Ledecky wins her second individual-event gold medal, taking the 200-meter freestyle.
Carmelo Anthony appears to tower over Gragory Vargas of Venezuela during a 113-69 win by the U.S.
David Boudia and Steele Johnson of the United States on their way to a silver medal in the Diving Synchronised 10m Platform.
Michael Phelps prepares to compete in the 100m Butterfly, a race in which he would tie for a silver medal.
The scene from the opening ceremony.
Ibtihaj Muhammad of the United States celebrates victory over Olena Kravatska of Ukraine during the Individual Sabre. She is the first woman to compete for Team USA wearing a hijab.
Usain Bolt does his popular lightning bolt pose.
Usain Bolt's gold-colored shoes moments after he won the 100-meter dash for the third consecutive Olympic Games.
Usain Bolt crossing the finish line in the 100.
Simone Biles smiles with teammates during the Team All-Around Final.
A team of divers hit the water in the Synchro 10m Platform competition.
Japan's Kaho Minagawa performs during the rhythmic gymnastics individual all-around qualifications.
Thailand's Peamwilai Laopeam right bows to judges as Colombia's Ingrit Lorena Valencia Victoria celebrates after winning a women's flyweight 51-kg quarterfinal boxing match.
New Zealand's Valerie Adams competes in the final of the shot put.
Opening Ceremonies of the Rio Olympic games viewed from Manguiera Favela.
Tyson Gay reacts after learning that the U.S. 4x100 relay had been disqualified and stripped of its third-place finish in the final.
Michael Phelps competes in the 200m Butterfly semifinals.
Team USA's Michael Phelps and Caeleb Dressel celebrate after winning the 4x100m freestyle relay final.
Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps and Simone Biles during their SI cover shoot.
Team USA takes bronze in the men's foil match against Italy.
Netherlands' Kitty van Male is hit on the face by Argentina's Agustina Habif during a quarterfinal field hockey match.
Aniuar Geduev of Russia, who won silver in the 74kg freestyle wrestling competition.
Etenesh Diro of Ethiopia at the finish of a 3,000m steeplechase heat.
U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas competes in the uneven bars event final.
The Great Britain team.
Russia's Timur Safin (left) competes against France's Jeremy Cadot.
Gwen Jorgensen of the U.S. reacts as she crosses the finish line to win the gold medal in the triathlon.
Competitors in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
Estonia's Magnus Kirt competes in the javelin throw qualifying round.
The U.S. vs. France in Rugby Sevens.
Sweden's Sofia Magdalena Mattsson celebrates after winning the bronze medal during the women's 53-kg freestyle wrestling competition.
China's Wang Yan performs on the floor during the artistic gymnastics women's apparatus final.
Brazil vs Australia in water polo.
(From left) Haiti's Jeffrey Julmis, Cuba's Yordan L. O'farril, Spain's Orlando Ortega, Hungary's Balzs Baji, USA's Ronnie Ash and Britain's Andrew Pozzi compete in a 110m hurdles semifinal.
Russia's Alexey Cheremisinov celebrates after winning a team foil semifinal bout against the U.S.
Yang Sun of China during a heat of the 400m Freestyle.
A general view during Saturday's tennis matches.
David Florence of Great Britain in the Canoe Slalom.
Carolina Marin of Spain celebrates her win over Ji Hyun Sung of Korea during a quarterfinal match.
Norway's pivot Heidi Loke (left) shoots while getting taken down by Russia's Ekaterina Ilina.
An underwater view of Michael Phelps taking part in a 100m butterfly semifinal.
The start of the triathlon.
Nia Ali of the U.S. in the 100-meter hurdles.
Sofia Ennaoui of Poland after a semifinal of the 1,500-meter run.
Lopez Azcuy of Cuba.
Almir Velagic of Germany in the 105kg weightlifting competition.
Competitors during the Opening Ceremony.
The scene from the Opening Ceremony.
Fu HF/Zhang of China in a badminton match.
Sandi Morris of the U.S. at the pole vault.
Jordan Burroughs of the United States competes against Aniuar Geduev of Russia during a freestyle 74kg quarterfinal.
Jordan Burroughs of the United States during a 3-1 round of 16 freestyle wrestling win Augusto Midana of Guinea-Bissau.
An underwater view of a diver.
Neymar and Gabriel Jesus after Brazil won an early round match.
The U.S. 4x100 medley relay team of Michael Phelps, Nathan Adrian, Cody Miller and Ryan Murphy celebrate their victory.
Zhong Tinashi of China in the Keirin Finals.
Travis Stevens of the U.S., who won silver in judo.
The competitors leave their blocks at the start of the 100-meter dash.
Cyclists compete in the men's Omnium Scratch race track cycling event.
South Korea wins its preliminary doubles badminton match against Australia.
Colombia's Leidy Yessenia Solis Arboleda competes in the 69kg weightlifting competition.
A Rugby team from Argentina poses for a photo.
A pair of boxers at the Rio Games.
Simone Biles of the U.S., who won four gold medals in Rio.
Astier Nicolas of France riding Piafde B'Neville in an Equestrian event.
Canoe competition at Whitewater Stadium.
Croatia vs Qatar in handball.
A view from the cycling track.
Anthony Ervin of the U.S. warms up for the 50m freestyle.
Mohamed Mahmoud of Egypt during the 77kg Group A weightlifting competition.
Simone Biles in the gymnastics qualifying.
Will Claye of the U.S. in the triple jump.
A heat of the 5,000.
Cheick Sallah Junior Cisse of Ivory Coast after winning told in the 80kg division of Taekwondo.
Mihail Dudas of Serbia in the decathlon long jump.
Athletes lined up for a heat of the 5,000.
Mo Farah of Great Britain winning the 10,000-meter final.
Team Ukraine in synchronized swimming.
Team Ukraine in synchronized swimming.