“Greek by birth. Wrestler by heart. Passionate about life. 3-time World Team member. 2016 Olympic Hopeful.” Those words are how 24 year-old Helen Maroulis describes herself on the internet.
On Sunday, this defending world champion, who hasn’t lost an international match in over a year, came one step closer to turning “Olympic Hopeful” into a reality, by winning her weight class at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
But she has even more hurdles to clear before she reaches Rio. Next, Maroulis must travel to compete in two World Olympic Qualifying events — the first in Ulanbaatar, Mongolia on April 22-24, and the second set for Istanbul, Turkey on May 6-8.
For this young Greek American, though, it has already been a long journey to get this far, overcoming one obstacle — and heartbreak — after another.
It’s safe to say she’s a trailblazer — few girls her age could have expected to ever compete nationally as wrestlers, much less in the Olympics.
But what’s hard to believe is that the fearless young woman you see today, was subject as a child to fears and doubts that held her back from engaging in physical activities traditionally considered “safer” or more appropriate for girls.
Until she discovered wrestling.
As Rick Maese writes in The Washington Post, something comes over Helen Maroulis when she steps on the mat. It’s been happening since she was seven years-old — Maroulis wrestled against the boys back then — and nowadays there’s just no controlling it.
“It’s so hard to describe,” she says. “I feel like when I get my hair braided and I put a singlet on, I enter this zone.”
“When I started playing sports when I was a kid, I was afraid of heights so I had to quit diving,” Maroulis said last year. “I was afraid of people watching me, and I was really shy, so I quit ballet. Then my mom put me in wrestling and it was the sport for me. It changed me as a person, it’s given me a lot of confidence, and it’s taught me about hard work, dedication, and sacrifice. It’s also given me a lot of opportunities to get a scholarship, travel the world, and be an ambassador in campaigns for women’s wrestling. These are things I never would have imagined.”
“Wrestling has changed my life tremendously.”
It’s easy to see why she says that — but the path she pioneered is not necessarily an easy one to follow.
Even though she is currently ranked number one in the nation in her weight class, and is a 5-time U.S. National Champion and three-time World medalist, making the Olympic team is by no means assured: she will be competing in a weight class considerably below where she has competed and won in the past.
And even if she makes the team, there’s another huge challenge ahead of her: no U.S. woman has ever won Olympic gold in wrestling.
Of course, it wasn’t exactly straight to the top for her to start off with.
While attending high school in Maryland, she managed to place only sixth in the state tournament. After spending her senior year of high school in Marquette, Michigan, she moved on to attend Missouri Baptist University, and then Simon Fraser University in Canada, where she succeeded in going undefeated for her entire college career, and becoming 4-time WCWA women’s college national champion.
Her many matches along the way include becoming Junior Nationals champion in 2007, coming in Eighth in the World Championships in 2008, and taking Second Place in the New York Athletic Club International Open in 2011.
And then came the 2012 Olympic trials.
ON OVERCOMING OBSTACLES
As Adam Kilgore writes in The Washington Post, before Maroulis’s triumph at last weekend’s Olympic trials, she had to overcome the torment from her experience in the last trials. She finished second in 2012, just missing a spot on the U.S. Olympic team by only a couple of points. “I can’t tell you how physically, emotionally and mentally heartbreaking it was,” Maroulis said. “The only memory I have of Iowa is just tears, and I didn’t want to come back here.”
The hurt, even as she became a 2015 world champion, consumed her.
“I think I forgave my team, my coaches I was mad at,” Maroulis said. “But I don’t think I ever fully forgave myself. I just pushed and tried to train and be so good it would never be an issue. But you’re still holding on to this anger.”
Maroulis realized she still needed to let go of the 2012 loss, and she had the necessary perspective. “It’s kind of like… change your perspective and just appreciate where you are and how far you’ve come on the route you want to go.”
Just two weeks ago, though, Maroulis’s grandfather died of a stroke.
Wrestling — and the attendant highs and lows — no longer seemed so important. Before traveling to Iowa City, she finally forgave herself.
“This prepares you for life,” Maroulis said. “If this got too hard that I couldn’t handle it and I opt out of it, that doesn’t mean life is easier.”
ON MEETING CHALLENGES: THE QUOTABLE HELEN MAROULIS
In Greek, “Πιστεύω” means “I believe”… Believe in yourself and believe in your training.
On the possibility of going to the 2016 Summer Olympics:
In 2012, I would have said I’ve been “dreaming about this my whole life”… But I’ve learned since then. I don’t dream for it anymore, I prepare for it.
On getting the right kind of feedback from coaches:
Sometimes all you’ll get to hear is “that was better,” but that’s the best kind of feedback. A coach who has high standards will help you raise your game more than a coach who just says “good job” all the time.
ON THE SPECIFIC CHALLENGE OF GETTING TO RIO
As Rick Maese writes in The Washington Post, leading up to the Rio Games, the sport’s governing body reshuffled the deck, adding two weight classes but dropping Maroulis’s. To pursue her Olympic dream, Maroulis had to choose between moving up or down in weight.
This means that she’ll be wrestling for the first time at 53 kilograms (116 pounds). She’s spent more than a year preparing her body for the challenge. Maroulis walks around closer to 130 pounds and has spent nearly her entire wrestling career at 121-1/2 pounds (55 kilograms). What difference does a few pounds make? In a word, everything.
“For me, the hardest part was the diet,” she said. “I love wrestling, love running, love lifting. But the diet was really hard.”
She teamed up with Charles Poliquin, an accomplished strength coach who has worked with a variety of athletes in all realms of sport. To help her track her effort to get her body ready for the lighter weight, Poliquin used a measurement technique he’d created called BioPrint, in which he measures fat at 14 points on the body, from chin to stomach to calves. He tries to analyze where fat is being stored and why it won’t come off. In addition to the calipers’ reading, he studies blood tests, hormone levels and sleep patterns. Maroulis’s initial reading: 23.9 percent body fat.
Poliquin ran this test weekly and adjusted the workout plan whenever the numbers changed. By January, she got the figure down to 16 percent and will enter this weekend’s trials at 12 percent body fat. If she can qualify, she hopes to compete in Rio around 9 percent.
“She’s just a really, really hard worker,” Poliquin says. “Too much sometimes. Sometimes we have to hold her back.”
Maroulis says she’s feeling comfortable with her body heading into the trials, and Poliquin is convinced his student is competing with the strength of a wrestler two weight classes above her.
When she began working with Poliquin, Maroulis says she couldn’t do a single pull-up. She can now do pull-ups with 60 pounds of weight strapped to her waist.
All the work away from the mat means that Maroulis can focus her energies on the one thing that’s always felt the most natural — wrestling. She’s come to terms with her body type, her size and her strength. She knows her limitations and her capabilities more intimately than she ever could’ve imagined four years ago.
“Wrestling has taught me it’s not what my body looks like,” she says, “but what my body can do.”
INSPIRING THE NEXT GENERATION
None of this — from the championships, to the challenges — ever seemed likely, much less possible, to Maroulis, reports Foxanna Scott for USA Today, at the age of seven, when she first followed her brother on to the wrestling mats.
That’s one reason she shares her story with young people around the world, in her role as one of eight ambassadors worldwide for women’s wrestling — to help inspire the next generation of girls coming up through the sport.
“I would not be the person you expected to be a wrestler if you knew me when I first started,” she tells them.
“I was really shy. I quit every sport that I tried because I was scared or I didn’t like performing in front of people…
I think girls may look at the sport and think it’s for someone who’s already tough and already confident. For me, I want to explain to women that it’s not true. It’s given me confidence.”
For girls who are competing in a field that didn’t even become an Olympic sport until the 2004 Summer Games, her message to the next generation, from Cuba to Azerbaijan, is simple:
“Keep doing what you do, set high goals and high standards because the opportunities are there now. You don’t have to stop after high school or after middle school. You can travel the world and go to college and get a scholarship.”
“Growing up, I think the hardest challenge in wrestling wasn’t the physical or mental demands of the sport, but finding guys who would be willing to work with me. No one ever wanted to be “stuck with the girl” for practice and I knew I couldn’t get better if I didn’t have a partner.”
“When I started, I only wrestled guys, and back then everyone was trying to get you to quit and go home… People think that girls can’t wrestle because they’re not tough enough, but for any of us to make it this far with what we went through is definitely not what a boy experiences. Every girl has her fair share of stories growing up and getting some kind of backlash.”
Maroulis wasn’t about to be chased away though, and that tenacity is a trait all wrestlers – male and female – share.
“Wrestling’s a great sport, and everything that it can teach a boy, it can teach a girl. It’s character-building and it would be great for people to experience that for themselves.”
“It’s an incredible sport. It’s always been offered to men. It’s one of the first sports ever. For women to have that opportunity now to wrestle is pretty incredible,” says Maroulis. “To be at the top level for a wrestler, they have to work on everything.”
“It’s a sport that requires your whole body. It takes coordination, balance and you have to have strength and flexibility because you have limbs being pulled one way and another, so your body has to be able to adapt. You really have to train everything and be prepared for that.”
Describing the dynamic nature of the sport, she says: “The action takes place all over on the wrestling mat, so that’s always exciting. I think referees always want us to keep it in the centre, so that’s what we strive for… but there are times when you’ll have someone on the edge, and then that’s a strategic area as well.”
As she explains, wrestling involves a wide range of defensive and attacking tactics, all which makes for a thrilling spectacle on the mat: “It’s pretty exciting because both athletes are trying to get the lead with points and scoring.”
“The beauty of wrestling is that everyone can have their own style,” she adds. “No match is ever going to look the same. I think with women, we bring something different to the sport… Men might have certain ways of doing technique, but we can take that and we might do it a bit differently. So I think women’s wrestling really complements wrestling as a whole.”
You show ’em, Helen!