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.”
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