Two U.S. women’s wrestlers won World Championships in a 100-minute span in Las Vegas on Thursday night, snowballing more hope that the nation can win its first Olympic women’s wrestling gold medal in Rio de Janeiro next year.
Adeline Gray captured her second straight World title in the 75kg division, third World title overall and fifth straight Worlds medal. Gray became the second U.S. woman to win back-to-back World titles and the second to earn medals five straight years.
Helen Maroulis earned her maiden title at 55kg, following silver in 2012 and bronze in 2014. She didn’t surrender a point in her four matches Thursday.
Gray and Maroulis share much more.
Gray, 24, began wrestling at age 6, when her father taught her basic moves that she still uses, more or less. Gray honed her skills grappling with boys in Colorado high school competition and overcame a defeat in the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials final, followed by 30 minutes of crying with a younger sister, to rise to a No. 1 world ranking in her division before she prevailed Thursday.
“I didn’t think that anybody was really capable of beating me,” Gray, who scored 13 straight points to win her gold-medal match 13-2 over China’s Zhou Qian, said in a press conference, still wearing her blue singlet. “It would have been more me beating myself.”
Maroulis, 23, began wrestling at age 7 because her little brother needed a partner. She, too, lost in the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials final, and, like, Gray, still went to the Olympics to help train the women who did make the Olympic team. Maroulis used the oh-so-close experience to catapult to No. 1 in the world rankings going into Vegas as well.
“She’s a rising star,” U.S. women’s wrestling coach Terry Steiner told media in Las Vegas. “Today, she rose.”
Gray and Maroulis both championed the progression of women’s wrestling after their titles Thursday.
“We have what, seven out of 50 states with state-sanctioned women’s [high school] wrestling programs,” said Maroulis, who says she prays before matches not to win but to wrestle without fear. “Clearly there’s a dire need for there to be more support and more opportunities for the girls.”
Before Thursday’s finals session, Steiner told a room full of USA Wrestling women’s alumni social attendees that Gray and Maroulis would both win later that night.
“We need heroes that young kids can look up to,” Steiner said after the duo proved him prophetic. “We have a couple leaders right now that can do that.”
Three U.S. women’s wrestlers have combined for five World titles in the last four years — Gray, Maroulis and Elena Pirozhkova.
In the same span, U.S. men’s wrestlers have won two World titles (both by Jordan Burroughs, and the men have the benefit of Greco-Roman weight classes, which woman do not have, plus more freestyle divisions). Burroughs wrestles at Worlds on Saturday.
However, U.S. men have won at least one Olympic wrestling gold medal at the last 10 Olympics, excluding the boycotted Moscow 1980 Games.
Women’s wrestling was added to the Olympic program in 2004, and Americans have won four medals in three Games, but zero golds.
In 2016, women’s wrestling will jump from four Olympic divisions to six with men’s freestyle and men’s Greco-Roman cutting from seven to six each.
The sport’s international federation made those changes as part of its bid to remain in the Olympics in 2013, and its president spoke of more gender balance in a Thursday press conference, but not until after the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Japan is the gold standard in women’s wrestling, a label Maroulis will have to fight in Rio de Janeiro, should she prevail at the Olympic trials in Iowa City in April.
That’s because all of Maroulis’ World medals have come at 55kg, which is not an Olympic weight class. She’ll have to descend to 53kg for 2016. That division is owned by Japan’s Saori Yoshida, who has won 15 straight global titles (Olympics/Worlds) dating to 2002 (though she, too, was 55kg, until 2014).
In Rio, Yoshida and teammate Kaori Icho could join Al Oerter (discus), Carl Lewis (long jump) and Denmark’s Paul Elvstroem (sailing) as the only Olympians to win gold medals in the same individual event at four straight Olympics, though Yoshida and Icho’s weight divisions have shifted slightly, and Elvstroem’s sailing events were a little different, too.
Michael Phelps could also join the club if he wins the 200m individual medley or 100m butterfly in Rio.
Gray and Maroulis both lapped the mats in Las Vegas wearing American flags following their victories, but does it compare to the Olympic stage, neither of which has experienced other than as spectators?
“Those are two separate things,” Gray said.
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