Rockville, Md., native Helen Maroulis was not always a likely choice to take down a nearly unbeatable icon and win a gold medal at the Summer Olympics. In fact, as she explained on Glenn Clark Radio Aug. 25, there was a time in her childhood where even participating in any sport at all seemed implausible.
“I was terrible at every sport I ever did,” Maroulis said. “I was afraid of heights; I just cried on the diving board. I was afraid of doing backflips, so I left gymnastics. I was afraid of being watched, so they asked my mom not to let me do the recital. Everything, they were just like, ‘Please don’t bring your daughter back.’
“But with wrestling, that was just the sport for me.”
Maroulis, 24, was thousands of miles and roughly a lifetime away from that fearful young girl when she stared down Saori Yoshida in Rio de Janeiro Aug. 18. It was the final of the 53kg women’s wrestling tournament, and Yoshida not only seemed unbeatable, she practically was. The 33-year-old from Japan had only lost three matches throughout her entire senior career — having won the previous three Olympic gold medals as well as 13 World Championships. Maroulis was one of her many victims, pinning her in 2011 and 2012. At the Rio games, Yoshida hadn’t dropped a single point ahead of the final. As Maroulis explained, “this legend comes out once a year, wrestles, wins and then we don’t see her.”
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Maroulis was forced to play from behind during the match. To avoid matches with no points, wrestlers who are being too defensive are placed, essentially, on a “shot clock,” in which they are given 30 seconds to score or else their opponent is awarded a point. The Maryland native was placed on the shot clock late during the first period with the match scoreless. When she didn’t score, it gave the international star a 1-0 lead. It’s the type of situation that could easily overwhelm an opponent in the biggest moment of their career. Somehow, that wasn’t the case for the American.
“I was completely unfazed by that,” Maroulis said. “In that moment, I had the confidence to just say, ‘You know, what, you’re going to see that I will not panic from this. That I can give up a point and it doesn’t change at all; it doesn’t give me any fear. I still had confidence.'”
Yeah. That’s a little bit different than crying on the diving board. Maroulis had been facing adversity throughout the previous decade, dating back to her days at Rockville’s Magruder High School. She regularly had to wrestle against boys, with some teams simply choosing to forfeit instead of sending an opponent out to face her.
“So when I started wrestling the boys … when you suck, no one cares,” Maroulis said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, pat on the back. Oh, you were good for a girl. Keep trying, keep working hard.’ Then all of a sudden you come back a year later, and if you’re better, all of a sudden you don’t get those pats on the back anymore. You get some comments.
“So that was an interesting experience. But it’s so cool to just kind of look back now. I didn’t know what God’s plan was at the time when I was going through that. You can get different lessons from the same experience. At the time that was helping to make me tougher — to persevere, to push through. Especially for a girl that started shy and not confident — in everything. That really helped instill those characteristics/traits in me.”
Adversity toughened her for that moment. And Maroulis combined that with an obsession to learn about her opponent. She studied Yoshida after 2012, even translating her interviews from Japanese to English to give her a better understanding of what might come.
The Montgomery County native knew her opponent would be more aggressive in the second period, expecting that the same shot clock might be put on her. In wrestling, if a match finishes in a tie, the last person to have scored wins. So Yoshida would have to attempt to score. When she did, Maroulis turned it into a takedown and ultimately into a 3-1 victory, claiming the United States’ first Olympic gold medal in women’s wrestling. An accomplishment she, admittedly, is still coming to grips with.
“Before I put the Olympics on this giant pedestal,” Maroulis said. “I felt like it’s something that I couldn’t reach, I couldn’t get. Now that I’m here, I’m like, ‘Oh, normal people can win the Olympics? I did that? That’s me! Oh this is so weird, and this is so cool and what an honor.’ And I thought only the Gods won or something. So that part hasn’t sunk in yet. And I don’t want to think of myself any differently because of it.”
For more from Maroulis, listen to the complete interview here: