Helen Maroulis
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Helen Maroulis mulls MMA after training with Conor McGregor

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Helen Maroulis wrestled in a cage with Conor McGregor for 45 minutes last week and is considering competing in mixed-martial arts. The first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion still wants to grapple at the Tokyo Games, though.

“If I could take a punch, I would love to do [MMA] one day,” Maroulis said in a phone interview from Norway, where she’s spending the winter with her boyfriend while finishing her college degree taking online classes. “If I could punch, I would love to do it one day. Obviously, you need other skills besides just wrestling.”

Maroulis’ interest in MMA led her to get in touch with John Kavanagh, who runs Straight Blast Gym in Dublin. She flew from Oslo to Dublin for five days last week to take classes in jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai. Coaches told her she had the skills to become a fighter.

“[Kavanagh] said the only reason a high-level athlete would come to fight is for the money, and that’s not worth the possible head trauma,” Maroulis said. “He pretty much said you need to make the decision if it’s something you want to do and why. I was really impressed by that, because I feel like a lot of people have encouraged me to fight. They’re like, yeah, you should go and do that, you’ll be huge. They’ll say stuff like, oh, you’ll make so much money.

“I love what I do with wrestling, and everyone knows it’s not a money sport. It’s not like a fame-based sport. So [money] has never been my motivation for why I’ve worked hard before. So I thought it was interesting that John pointed that out. A lot of athletes are transferring over at a very high level. Well, why is it that they’re coming to MMA? Is it for the love of the sport, or is it for the money? He’s not against either one of them, but I think it was just very humbling for me to step back and say, OK, why do I want to do this? What would be the reasons? I’m very competitive, so there’s just something that looks really exciting about getting in the cage. It just looks like a new challenge, a new puzzle to solve and just all the disciplines that I got to experience, it was like, cool, I see how this is like wrestling. … I would enjoy transitioning and working hard on those areas, but then the bigger picture, which is the potential long-term injuries, is also something to factor in.”

Maroulis opted not to make any decisions yet, especially because she definitely wants to wrestle in the 2020 Olympics.

“That’s something I’ve been praying about and asking myself,” she said. “How is it going to work? Is four years too late to start? Can I do some stuff now?”

Maroulis met McGregor in Dublin but thought the UFC champion would be too busy to do more than pose for a photo. She was wrong.

Kavanagh suggested McGregor could show Maroulis some MMA basics. They did more than that, wrestling in the cage for nearly an hour.

“He moves really, really well,” said Maroulis, who has plenty of experience training with Olympic champions Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Snyder, as well as Russian men. “He’s very slick. And he really has good feel for body position. So I think it was beneficial on both ends.

“You can respect when someone appreciates the sport, or they can appreciate the details of it. I feel like he has a very natural ability for wrestling, very detail-oriented. … And I learned that wrestling in the cage is way harder than wrestling on a mat with no walls.”

Maroulis plans to wrestle in competition for the first time since Rio at a meet in Ukraine in early March. She expects to compete at 58kg this year, rather than 53kg in Rio and 55kg at the 2015 World Championships.

Maroulis, who noted the difficulty in cutting weight to 53kg for Rio, laughed when asked if she could compete at 53kg after nearly seven months off.

“Absolutely not,” she said laughing. “That was a one-time. I mean, maybe I could do that again in four years, but, no, I’ve really been enjoying the food.”

If Maroulis qualifies for and competes at 58kg at the world championships in Paris in August, she could go up against Japanese legend Kaori Icho. In Rio, Icho became the first woman in any sport to win an individual-event gold medal in four Olympics.

Remember in Rio, Maroulis kept another Japanese legend, Saori Yoshida, from reaching that four-gold-medal feat. Yoshida was expected to retire after Rio, but afterward said she would consider returning for a run to Tokyo, perhaps after a one- or two-year break.

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With USOC in turmoil, athletes testify about sex-abuse cases

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The question sex-abuse victim Craig Maurizi would like to ask U.S. Olympic leaders is simple and searing: “How can you sleep at night?”

Every bit as perplexing: How to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

The figure skater was one of four Olympic-sports athletes who testified to a Senate subcommittee Wednesday about abuse they suffered while training and competing under the purview of the U.S. Olympic Committee and the national sports organizations that controlled their Olympic dreams.

Their testimony provided yet another reminder of the way leaders at the USOC, US Figure Skating, USA Gymnastics and other federations failed to protect them over a span of decades.

At a USOC board meeting held later in the day, acting CEO Susanne Lyons outlined a six-part “Athlete Action Safety Plan” the federation is developing as a response to the abuse cases.

But the abuse victims, including Olympic gymnasts Jordyn Wieber and Jamie Dantzscher and speed skater Bridie Farrell, cast doubt on the USOC’s motivation to solve this problem.

Wieber, who won a gold medal in 2012, is among the roughly 200 athletes who have detailed abuse by team doctor Larry Nassar, who is in prison for molesting athletes on the U.S. gymnastics team and at Michigan State.

“After many people came forward and said Larry Nassar had abused them, I didn’t get a phone call from anyone at the USOC asking anything until after I gave a victim-impact statement,” Wieber said, recalling the emotional week in a Michigan courtroom that spotlighted the depth of the abuse scandal. “If you’re not currently a competing athlete, you’re not really relevant. They don’t really care anymore.”

The USOC is in search of a new CEO — someone to replace Scott Blackmun, who resigned with health problems in February.

When Blackmun resigned, the USOC announced a number of initiatives that mirrored the six-part plan Lyons described Wednesday.

It includes more funding for abuse victims and a review of the governance structure of the USOC and the 47 national governing bodies, whose sports make up the Olympics.

The USOC has also doubled its funding — to $3.1 million a year — for the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which opened last year.

Two months ago, the center responded to Maurizi’s call about a four-decade-old abuse case that US Figure Skating swept under the rug when he first reported it 20 years ago.

“When I think back to my particular situation, there’s just no way that dozens, if not hundreds, of people around the ice rink didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “Five-hour meetings in the office with a 15-year-old boy? That’s ridiculous. So, my question would be: How do you live with yourself? … How can you sleep at night?”

Leaders at the USOC, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State could be forced to answer those questions May 22, which is the date the Senate subcommittee has scheduled its next hearing on the sex-abuse cases.

It’s doubtful the USOC will have a new CEO by then, though it’s becoming clear it needs a well-articulated path forward through a devastating 12 months for Olympic athletes and the organizations that are supposed to protect them.

Max Siegel, the CEO of USA Track and Field, said commercial partners are hesitant to strike deals under the current climate.

“It’s an indication to me that it’s impacting the commercial viability of the business, and it’s a reflection of the societal challenges we face,” he said.

He said he was not opposed to a rethinking of the relationship between the USOC and NGBs, which have long valued their independence as the training grounds for Olympic athletes. The USOC has often positioned itself as an umbrella organization — a mere bystander when it comes to day-to-day operation of the sports.

“It’s not always clear what role we should be playing,” said Lyons, who attended the hearings in Washington. “Sometimes, athletes fall between the cracks a bit when they have issues with NGBs.”

Farrell served up the only concrete proposal in the more than two hours of testimony to the Senate subcommittee.

She would like to see more athletes — closer to 50 percent — placed on NGB boards. She’d also like to see retired athletes given a chance to serve.

The USOC appears amenable to that suggestion; one of its reforms is to see that athletes have a louder voice in decisions that impact them.

When asked what she would say to the leaders, Farrell said she would make one simple request:

“Take our names out, take our pictures out, and put their kids’ names and pictures in there, and see if it makes a difference,” she said. “Let them know there are thousands of people looking at them, as they should be, for missing the opportunity.”

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U.S. Ski & Snowboard names new Alpine director

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Jesse Hunt is returning to U.S. Ski & Snowboard as the Alpine team director, replacing Patrick Riml, who left the post last month after seven years in the position.

Hunt first joined U.S. Ski & Snowboard as a coach in 1993 and became Alpine director after the 2002 Olympics, leaving the post in 2009 for Park City Ski & Snowboard in Utah. He served as program director and general manager in Park City over the last nine years.

“We have an exciting challenge ahead of us to give our Alpine ski racers the chance to be best in the world, but that is precisely the challenge that motivates me the most, helping athletes achieve everything that they are capable of,” Hunt said in a press release. “We have a strong mix of highly experienced athletes and those coming up through the ranks in both the men’s and women’s teams, in speed and tech, and the chance to help all of them achieve greatness is one I could not turn down.”

No reason was given when Riml stepped down last month.

Under Riml, the U.S. Alpine skiing team earned eight medals between the 2014 and 2018 Olympics, led by Lindsey VonnMikaela ShiffrinJulia MancusoBode Miller and Ted Ligety.

In PyeongChang, the U.S. earned zero men’s Alpine medals at the Olympics for the first time since 1998. Riml called the Olympic men’s performance “disappointing” and said “we definitely have to rebuild” before the 2022 Olympics, according to The Associated Press.

The U.S. had one men’s World Cup podium finish this past season and two the season before, its least successful stretch since 1999-00.

Mancuso retired before PyeongChang, and Vonn is expected to retire after next season, large boots to fill on the women’s speed side.

U.S. Ski & Snowboard has a goal of becoming the world’s best team by 2026 through “Project 26,” a change in national team selection and development programming with a focus on the 2022 and 2026 Olympics.

“Some of our Alpine team’s greatest successes have been propelled by the work that Jesse accomplished during his first tenure with us,” U.S. Ski & Snowboard Chief of Sport Luke Bodensteiner said in the press release. “He’s the right person to lead our team right now, as we continue to maximize the capability of our elite team, while also activating the roadmap in our development efforts to build our team for the future.

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