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.
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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…

I’m afraid.

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.

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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.

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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.

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