Author’s Note: On Wednesday, two-time Olympic wrestling medalist Helen Maroulis will compete against Alexandra Hedrick at Final X in New York as part of the 12th annual benefit for Beat the Streets. The winner of the best-of-three series will earn the right to compete for the U.S. at the 2022 World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, from September 10-18.
Before stepping onto the wrestling mat at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, Helen Maroulis reminded herself to take it all in.
“I just remember thinking, ‘This is the last tournament that I’ll ever wrestle,'” Maroulis, 30, reflects now.
It wasn’t the first time Maroulis thought her wrestling career was coming to an end.
After becoming the first American woman to win wrestling gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Maroulis faced an even tougher road to Tokyo. In January 2018, the Maryland native suffered a head injury while competing in India. Concussion symptoms, coupled with shoulder surgery and post-traumatic stress disorder, took over her life. After she sustained another concussion in August 2019, she decided she was done.
That retirement decision was ultimately brief, but the Helen Maroulis who returned to the mat wasn’t the same athlete who won Olympic gold in 2016.
“I wasn’t really ever the same since the concussions,” she explains. “It just became this psychological and emotional battle. I had struggled for so long that it was hard to imagine that I could ever get out of that.”
She wrestled on a torn MCL at U.S. Olympic Trials in April 2021, defeating Jenna Burkert to earn her spot on Team USA.
“The MCL being torn was really affecting my wrestling. But I think that was also just triggering to maybe some psychological stuff and fears about coming back,” she says. “I just wanted to wrestle free. I just wanted to wrestle the way that I used to, where I’m not having to protect this part of my body or watch out for this (other part)… I just wanted to go out there and compete and do what I love.”
But despite Maroulis trying to will herself into a better headspace, she says self-doubt remained a constant in the lead-up to her second Olympics.
In Tokyo, Maroulis won her opening two matches before losing to eventual gold medalist Risako Kawai of Japan in the semifinal round. And in losing, Maroulis found an unexpected peace.
“I was like, ‘Why am I not more sad?'” she told reporters in Tokyo. ” I realized I spent four years trying to get back my wrestling the way that it felt and be able to not have fear and fire off and be healthy. And I’m like, ‘That’s the biggest gift.'”
One day after losing to Kawai, Maroulis battled back to win Olympic bronze.
“Something just clicked,” she says now. “I just went out there and wrestled like my old self and the way that I used to. Once I finally got that back… it was like, ‘Why retire now?'”
A few weeks after Tokyo, she won her third world title. And she’s said she’s aiming to compete at the Paris Olympics in two years “unless life changes.” But while Maroulis might be wrestling like her old self, that doesn’t mean she’s the same person.
“I’ve learned healthy boundaries for myself and I’ve just gotten to know myself better,” she says. “I just really love the way that I’m pursuing the sport now.”
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