Adeline Gray wipes away tears, then opponents to apex of women’s wrestling

Adeline Gray
AP
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It’s the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, and Adeline Gray is wrestling in the finals for a spot on her first Olympic team.

Her sister Geneva is watching from about four rows up at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. Geneva, a former high school wrestler, is also grappling.

“I was in tears,” Geneva said, “before the match even ended.”

That’s because, in the second match of a best-of-three series, it’s become clear that the 21-year-old Adeline Gray cannot overcome opponent Elena Pirozhkova.

The Russian-born Pirozhkova, who won the first match, leads 3-0 in the second with 18 seconds to go to clinch her place in London and leave Gray off the team.

The seconds tick out, a whistle blows five times in succession, flash bulbs flare and the Iowa audience applauds. The referee grabs Pirozhkova’s left arm and Gray’s right. That’s the moment Gray remembers the most.

“The end of wrestling matches you always get your hand raised [if you win],” Gray recalled recently. “I was just so used to getting my hand raised. At the Olympic trials, I knew I lost, like I understood it, but I went to raise my hand before the referee. He looked at me, and he was like, ‘No, I’m right. I was supposed to raise [Pirozhkova’s] hand.'”

The next hour is what Geneva remembers.

Adeline Gray has three sisters. Geneva was the only person with her immediately following the most stinging defeat of her life.

Adeline and Geneva, who is two years younger, both wrestled against the boys and sat shoulder to shoulder doing homework while at Chatfield High School in Littleton, Colo.

“We wrestled together, our whole lives together, basically,” said Geneva, who went on to play soccer in college and is now a sales associate for an industrial supplies company.

At the 2012 trials, after Adeline’s defeat, Adeline had Geneva come down from her seat, out of view of the competition mats, and join her in an area where she went through customary post-match drug testing.

Geneva looked at Adeline, whose expressions during the Pirozhkova match had been hidden by her unkempt brown hair, and was reminded of one other instance.

“In high school during the regional tournament she tore the ligaments in her thumb,” Geneva said. “This is coming from me, I believe she would’ve been a state [championships] placer that year. It all ended with just one little injury. I was there with her through that, but that was not on this level.”

Adeline wept for about 30 minutes after losing to Pirozhkova.

“[Geneva] just held me and let me cry and break down,” Adeline said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It was a dream for a long time [to make the Olympic team], and it was really sad that I didn’t get that opportunity to do that. I thought I was going to win that day, and to have to change that mentality was tough.”

It’s not over, Geneva told her. You’re 21. You’re still young. Adeline finished drug testing and moved toward what’s called a mixed zone — where athletes go for post-competition interviews.

Adeline attempted to compose herself and turned to her younger sister. Do I look OK, she asked.

“I wiped her face and her hair,” Geneva said. “My sister blew me away at that moment. Her persona. I was so impressed. … It blew me away how stoic she managed to be.”

Gray said she’s grown tangibly since, earning medals at every World Championships and becoming arguably the biggest favorite for Olympic gold on the U.S. wrestling team — among men and women.

On Thursday, she wrestles for her second straight World Championships gold in the 75kg division.

She will try to join Kristie Davis, the most decorated U.S. women’s wrestler of all time, as the only American women to earn medals at five straight World Championships.

Even bigger, an American woman has never won an Olympic wrestling gold medal. If Gray prevails in Las Vegas — and she enters competition ranked No. 1 in the world — she will go into 2016 favored to become the first American woman to win an Olympic title.

The headliner of this week’s meet, the first World Wrestling Championships held in the U.S. since 2003, is Jordan Burroughs, the 2012 Olympic champion and two-time World champion.

Burroughs, who once won 105 straight matches but lost at last year’s Worlds, has his own shoe and 127,000 Twitter followers. He called Gray (3,508 followers) the gold standard of U.S. women’s wrestling and compared her last four years to his accomplishments over the same span.

“She’s not the best technically, but she’s the toughest, no doubt the toughest woman wrestler I’ve ever seen,” Burroughs said.

The toughness was tested in 2012. Not only with that defeat in Iowa City, but also in the six months before trials and, three months after the trials, during the Olympics.

Gray was the 2011 World bronze medalist at 67kg, not an Olympic weight class, but said by late that fall she was at almost 170 pounds before deciding to drop down to 63kg (138 pounds) for the April 2012 trials. It took her six months to lose the 30 pounds, she said, with the help of an app that logged every piece of food that went into her mouth.

She said she weighed in at trials at 62.8 kilograms and wrestled the next day at 70.

“To put on almost 16 pounds overnight just shows you how absorbent my body was, not liking to be at that lower weight class,” Gray said.

She wrestled at trials after injuries kept her off the mat for two months, returning to it two days before leaving for Iowa City and then needing to beat five opponents in one day to become an Olympian. She nearly pulled it off, taking down four before being foiled by Pirozhkova, the 2010 World silver medalist in the weight class that Gray was new to.

“I remember the day after feeling like I got hit by a truck and then a train,” Gray said. “I think most of it was the emotional side.”

Three months later, Gray was in London for the Olympics, even though she didn’t make the team. U.S. Olympic wrestlers need training partners at the Games, and runners-up at trials are often brought over. Plus, they are technically alternates in case of injuries.

So Gray flew to London and even saw the Opening Ceremony.

“In a bar,” she said. “It was a dark pub. That wasn’t a fun moment.”

Gray said she was also dumped around that time and a family member was hospitalized back home.

“There were still really great moments that happened at the Olympics, even though I felt like I spent the whole time with my head down and being sad about my own pity party,” she said.

Tickets to see her friends compete weren’t free or even cheap. But she did witness Burroughs win his gold medal.

“I saw that moment of relief on his face,” she said.

Burroughs has never been a traveling alternate for an Olympics or World Championships team, but he identified with what Gray went through.

“Once you feel the embarrassment that she felt in London, that motivates you,” Burroughs said.

Gray moved back up to 67kg for the 2012 World Championships, two months after the Olympics, and won gold. Coaches urged her to continue to add weight, and by 2014 she was World champion at 75kg, the heavyweight division.

“I never thought that I was going to struggle finishing my dinners and then having a protein shake,” said Gray, who knows the exact number of countries she’s visited as an international athlete (22, thanks to a pinboard gift from her family) and has posters of soccer player Alex Morgan and 2004 Olympic champion wrestler Cael Sanderson inside her dorm room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. “It’s all I wished for was extra food when I was cutting weight [in 2012].”

At Worlds, Gray won’t have to face the No. 2-ranked woman in her division. Canada’s Erica Wiebe was beaten at her trials. Instead, Gray sees her biggest threats coming from China and Japan.

“They are a little bit quick on the outside, like a little skippy dog,” Gray, who is listed at 5 feet, 10 inches, said of Japanese wrestlers. “I’m trying to catch them. I’m like, get back here!”

Gray wore a black shirt with the words, “Gray to Gold,” for an interview while training at Columbia University earlier this summer. The motto, not just for Vegas but for Rio and perhaps beyond, was the idea of Burroughs, whose charisma shines through his Twitter handle, @alliseeisgold.

“I had my sisters on a mission to come up with a good quote for a T-shirt, and they were awful,” joked Gray, who is sponsored by Asics, the apparel company that also reps Burroughs. “My mom’s a marketing major and couldn’t come up with a good one.”

Gray mentioned the dilemma to Burroughs while with the U.S. team overseas a year and a half ago.

“Gray to Gold would look great on a shirt,” he said.

“It came out of his mouth, and it was so beautiful,” Gray said. “I was sitting there and wanted to hit him. I owe him a T-shirt.”

Gray wouldn’t mind trading a shirt for a pair of wrestling shoes. Burroughs has his own line of competition footwear — little boys have been known to at-mention @alliseeisgold after receiving a pair for birthday or Christmas gifts.

In the 45-minute interview at Columbia, Gray spoke most at length about how she would like to be a role model for female wrestlers.

“There’s never been a female [wrestling] shoe,” she said. “Two things I’d love to see. A female’s name on a wrestling shoe, and eventually a female shoe. I wear boys sizes.”

There’s also been chatter since 2012 of a battle of the sexes match between Gray and Burroughs. Gray once wrestled another man, Worlds veteran Reece Humphrey, on a beach in Cuba. Humphrey was allowed to use one arm, and Gray said she had a 40-pound weight advantage.

Gray and Burroughs are closer in weight class.

“Every time Jordan takes me down, I get 30 seconds on top,” Gray said she’s proposed.

“It’s all just small talk,” Burroughs said in a phone interview last week. “Mostly me being facetious. She’s kind of entertained it, because she’s a competitor.”

Gray looks back on 2012 and, given her success since, wonders if she made the wrong decision in dropping down a weight class for trials rather than moving up.

“I’ve played it over 100 times in my head,” she said, but not concretely regretting the choice.

She was by contrast resolute that day in Iowa City, when she moved into the mixed zone for interviews following her loss at the Olympic trials.

She spoke as if the feeling of defeat, along with the tears, had already been wiped away.

‘This just showed me that with a little more discipline, I will make the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro,” Gray said then, according to the Denver Post. “It’s not going to be a question about whether I step onto that team. It’s going to be more a question whether I win one gold medal and keep wrestling, or win my gold medal and then retire.”

MORE WRESTLING: Jordan Burroughs leads U.S. roster for World Championships

Katie Ledecky talks swimming legacy and life in Gainesville

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OlympicTalk recently caught up with Katie Ledecky to discuss life since moving from Stanford to Florida 15 months ago, her meticulous mindset, and the legacy she continues to build.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also catch an encore presentation of Ledecky’s performance at the 2022 U.S. Open this Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC.

What does a typical day look like for you Gainesville? Walk me through a full day starting from the minute your alarm clock goes off.

Ledecky: A typical day would be waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and swimming from 6 to 8. Then I have weights from 8 to 9:15. I get breakfast, have lunch and then take a nap. Then I have practice again at 2 or 3 in the afternoon for another two hours.

Wow, that sounds incredibly busy! Have you had a chance to find any new favorite places to eat in Gainesville?

Ledecky: I’m still kind of finding my spots. There is a breakfast spot pretty close to campus that a lot of the swimmers like, so I go there quite a bit, but I’m still looking. I haven’t gone to very many places more than once.

What are you doing in your free time? Are you coaching?

Ledecky: Yes, I’m volunteering with the [University of Florida] team, but I think of myself more as a teammate. I have a lot of other things going on with sponsorships, but aside from that, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a piano and enjoy playing that!

How often do you get to see your family?

Ledecky: My parents, David and Mary, still live in the D.C. area, and then my brother, Michael, lives in New York, so I’m a lot closer to home [than at Stanford]. I see them around the holidays, and they come to a lot of my swim meets.

I know how much you love to stay academically engaged. Are you taking any classes at the University of Florida?

Ledecky: I’m not taking any classes right now. I’m taking a break, but I’m still trying to learn as much as I can just in other areas, reading a lot and watching the news, following different things that I’m interested in. I think at some point, I’ll probably go to grad school, but I’m still figuring out what area that would be in right now.

There’s a quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I feel like that only scratches the surface of describing your work ethic and mindset. You demand excellence in every area of your life, not just from yourself, but from others around you. Can you talk about where that mindset comes from?

Ledecky: I’ve always had that kind of a mindset. I’m very driven, and I’m always setting new goals for myself no matter what I’ve achieved in the past. I’m always looking forward, I don’t take very many breaks, and so it’s always on to the next goal and making sure I’m doing the little things right and doing the things I need to do to reach my goals.

To be able to perform at the level that you do every single day takes a lot of mental toughness. What do Katie Ledecky’s inner thoughts look like? What do you tell yourself? Any affirmations? 

Ledecky: I try to stay positive no matter how well or how poorly a practice or a race is going. When I’m swimming, I give myself positive mental pep talks along the way throughout a race. I’ll say “keep it up,” “hold pace” or “hit this turn.”

I just want to read you a few tweets… 

You idolized Michael Phelps when you were younger, and now you’re that person for a lot of people. You’re the GOAT. You’re Katie Ledecky. Someone’s idol. What does that feel like?

Ledecky: It’s an honor to have young swimmers look up to me, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be a good role model and reach out to young kids and sign autographs and take photos if people approach me at swim meets. I hope that there are some young swimmers out there that will grow up to be champions or maybe they’ll just continue to love the sport or find other things that they’re passionate about, but it’s an honor.

Have you had any memorable interactions with young swimmers?

Ledecky:  Yeah, actually the World Cup in Indianapolis [in November]. We were given those giant checks at the end of the meet that you really can’t travel with, so I was able to sign it and give it to one of the basket carriers at the meet. They were thrilled, and it was fun to be able to put a smile on their face.

Give me just one word to describe each of these milestones in your life, starting with the 2012 Olympics.

Ledecky: The first. It was my first international competition and my first gold medal, so that’s the one that’ll probably be the most special for me forever.

OLY-2012-SWIM

2016 Rio Olympics.

Ledecky: Consistency. I was swimming in multiple events at the Olympics for the first time and I just got into a really good rhythm and felt so comfortable in the pool deck. So confident. That was just a very unique feeling.

Tokyo Games.

Ledecky: Tokyo was different with all the COVID protocols. Nobody in the stands. No family there. But it was a lot of fun still, so a lot of great memories with my teammates there.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your career? What do you want to be remembered for?

Ledecky: I’d like to be remembered as somebody that worked really hard and gave my best effort every time I got up on the blocks and represented Team USA. Hopefully, I can continue to inspire young kids to work hard in whatever it is that they are passionate about, whether that’s something academic, athletic, or something else. If you find something that you really love, you should go all in on it and try to be the best you can be at it.

You’ve achieved so much in life already personally and professionally, I just want to ask: Are you genuinely happy? Are you satisfied in this season of life right now?

Ledecky: Oh yeah, I’m very happy. I love the sport more and more every year. I get a little sad thinking about the day I will eventually retire–which isn’t anytime soon. I love the sport. I’m trying to just enjoy every day of training and racing and trying to be the best that I can be.

I say this all the time, I never imagined I would even make it to one Olympics and so to be training now to try to qualify for a fourth Olympics is it’s all just icing on the cake at this point and something that I truly enjoy. I enjoy doing it with my teammates, striving for similar goals, and getting to do it with really great people.

Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self — the little Palisades Porpoise?

Ledecky: I don’t have very many regrets or anything in my career, so I think I would just continue to tell myself to have fun and enjoy every moment. Maybe, write down a little bit more early on. I’ve done a better job of journaling and writing down different things so that I can remember them down the road, but I didn’t do as good of a job in 2012 and 2013.

Rapid-fire questions. Race day hype song? 

Ledecky: “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen.

Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without … 

Ledecky: My suit, cap and goggles.

Did you have AIM back in the day? What was your embarrassing screen name?

Ledecky: I didn’t. I didn’t even have a cell phone until before the London Olympics. I think I actually borrowed my brother’s phone for that, and then we went out and bought an iPad so that I could FaceTime my family from London. I didn’t have an email account either until high school.

Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?

Ledecky: Well, USA Swimming did carpool karaoke in 2016 before the Olympics. My car did “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which is a great karaoke song because it’s like 10 minutes long so maybe I would choose that just as a fun memory. We also did “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen in 2012. Those are two fun songs with some fond memories.

Post-workout meal?

Ledecky: After morning practice, eggs and toast or veggies and eggs. I love breakfast. I could eat breakfast food for all three meals and I’d be satisfied.

Cheat meal? 

Ledecky: Either pizza or a burger.

If you had to choose another Olympic sport to compete in what would it be and why? 

Ledecky: Probably hockey. I’m not good on skates, but it’s my favorite sport to watch.

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Marie-Philip Poulin is first female hockey player to win Canada Athlete of the Year

Marie-Philip Poulin
Getty
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Marie-Philip Poulin became the first female hockey player to win Canada’s Athlete of the Year after captaining the national team at the Winter Olympics and winning her third gold medal.

Poulin, 31, scored twice and assisted once in Canada’s 3-2 win over the U.S. in the Olympic final on Feb. 17. She has scored seven of Canada’s 10 goals over the last four Olympic finals dating to the 2010 Vancouver Games — all against the U.S.

Nine different male hockey players won Canada Athlete of the Year — now called the Northern Star Award — since its inception in 1936, led by Wayne Gretzky‘s four titles. Sidney Crosby won it in 2007 and 2009, and Carey Price was the most recent in 2015.

Poulin is the fifth consecutive Olympic champion to win the award in an Olympic year after bobsledder Kaillie Humphries in 2014, swimmer Penny Oleksiak in 2016, moguls skier Mikaël Kingsbury in 2018 and decathlete Damian Warner in 2021.

Canada’s other gold medalists at February’s Olympics were snowboarder Max Parrot in slopestyle, plus teams in speed skating’s women’s team pursuit and short track’s men’s 5000m relay.

In men’s hockey, Cale Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in leading the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup and the Norris Trophy as the season’s best defenseman.

The Northern Star Award is annually decided by Canadian sports journalists.

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