Helen Maroulis, a native of Rockville, Md., became the first American woman to win an Olympic wrestling gold medal when she defeated Japan’s Saori Yoshida in the finals of the 53 kg weight class (117 pounds) in women’s freestyle wrestling at the Rio Games in 2016.

However, Maroulis suffered two concussions and a shoulder injury during competition in 2018. The 29-year-old experienced myriad difficulties stemming from the head injuries and considered giving up wrestling, but once she was fully recovered, she decided to continue. She qualified for Toyko in April at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in the 57 kg weight class (126 pounds).

PressBox: Do you have a message for girls trying to get involved in wrestling?
Helen Maroulis: I would say just go to your local club, find a club around you and also there’s a ton of tournaments and different camps that you can go to and there’s camps for different levels. … You don’t need a lot of equipment, so I would tell them just try it out. You never know. You don’t have to be a certain type of person. Just because wrestling might look a certain way — it might look like a fighter, it might look like you have to be tough — that’s not true. I was very shy when I started and very timid and scared and I cried a lot. I just fell in love with it.

PB: Who was the biggest influence on you growing up?
HM: When I was 13, the first-ever Olympic camp got opened up to any girl, so at 13 years old I got to go to the first-ever Olympic camp. So seeing the first women’s Olympic team and getting to be around them and see how they trained and see how they worked, that was super inspiring and really changed my life. It kind of just taught me what I would have to do if I wanted to get there. I would say the 2004 women’s Olympic team.

PB: When did you realize you could compete on the international stage?
HM: I made my first Senior World Team in 2008. I had just turned 17 years old like the day before, so that was cool. That kind of happened really fast. Probably then, just because that’s what I was doing.

PB: What did it mean to become the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling mean to you?
HM: I grew up watching women wrestle in the Olympics … so I definitely wanted all the women before me to win, but I don’t think I was thinking about being the first. When the Games came around and it hadn’t been done yet, I really just wanted to win and I wanted all my teammates to win. But just the way everything happened, it was like, “Wow.” It’s just really incredible. I really can’t believe that it happened, but at the same time, I can. I put the work into it and I’m very grateful for that.

PB: How long have you been a Ravens fan? What was it like to give a pregame speech for the Ravens in 2016 after you won the gold medal?
HM: I don’t watch a ton of sports. My family and extended family, they’re all in Maryland, so they were split between the Ravens and Washington Football Team. I got invited to the Ravens game, and they were just kind of having a photo op with Coach Harbaugh and I. He just asked me a question and I just answered it. He goes, “Oh, wow, that’s great, will you tell my guys that?” I’m like, “Sorry, what?” He goes, “Yeah, will you tell my guys that?” I’m like, “Right now?” He’s like, “Yeah, right now, before the game in the locker room.” I’m like, “Uh, OK.” I was so nervous. That was not planned. It was really spur of the moment. It was so cool to get to talk to him and pick his brain and to see his perspective on things [as a football coach].

PB: Who helped you get through your injuries in recent years the most?
HM: Jesus Christ definitely helped me get through that more than anything else, but I also had a lot of amazing people, doctors and my family. I would say Jesus, doctors and family. I did a variety of different treatments and kind of just went all over trying to figure out what would work. I was very thankful for that help.

PB: When did you realize you weren’t done wrestling and you wanted to keep pushing?
HM: I don’t know. It all happened really fast. I retired in November, and then I told my mom. She was like, “That was the right decision. If you’re going to be nervous about being injured again, it’s better just to not wrestle.” And she said, “Now, do I think you can win again?” She goes, “Yeah, I do.” My mom doesn’t lie to me. She’s very practical about what I’m capable of and not capable of. I started crying because I just felt like there’s still something left in the tank and I don’t want to stop before that. I’ve made this commitment, so I just want to see it through as long as I stay healthy.

PB: What did you learn the most as you battled injuries?
HM: I learned about the fragility of humans on the one extreme and also the capabilities of humans as well. I knew what the journey was like winning at the highest level and just getting to see your body do these amazing things that you never expected it could do. At the same time, I really experienced what it was like to be on the complete opposite end of the spectrum and to just feel like your body betrayed you or you’re a shell of the person that you were. It just taught me a lot. It taught me to really be grateful for every little moment, to be grateful for my health, for what I have in my life and to never take anything for granted.

PB: Considering everything that you’ve been through, what did it mean to you to qualify for the Olympics again?
HM: This time around, it was so different because my circumstances were just unlike anything I’ve ever expected. I wasn’t coming off of consistent training over the last couple years. I was coming off of just the craziest last couple of years emotionally, spiritually, physically, inconsistent training. It just felt like I was constantly fighting just to get back there, so to be able to do that and get to represent my country again, it was surreal. It was just beautiful because I’m more grateful for the way that I approached it this time and for the person that I am now and just the way I’ve grown and changed. It’s definitely more special this time around.

PB: What are you looking forward to the most at the Olympics?
HM: Wrestling, competing, getting to do what I love, being with my teammates. We have a great team. I think we could win the team title and be the best team and country in the world. That’s the main thing.

Photo Credit: Tony Rotundo/WrestlersAreWarriors

Issue 269: June/July 2021

Originally published June 16, 2021

Luke Jackson

See all posts by Luke Jackson. Follow Luke Jackson on Twitter at @luke_jackson10