Helen Maroulis mulls MMA after training with Conor McGregor

Helen Maroulis
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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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Dmitriy Balandin, surprise Olympic swimming champion, retires

Dmitriy Balandin
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Dmitriy Balandin, the Kazakh swimmer who pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2016 Rio Olympics, retired at age 27.

“Today I would like to announce the end of my sports career,” Balandin said last week, according to Kazakhstan’s Olympic Committee. “I am still inspired. A new phase of my life begins. I have a lot of cool projects in my head that will soon be implemented.”

Balandin reportedly has coaching aspirations.

In 2016, he won the Olympic men’s 200m breaststroke out of lane eight as the last qualifier into the final. He edged American Josh Prenot by seven hundredths of a second and became Kazakhstan’s first Olympic swimming medalist.

He followed that up with 11th- and 17th-place finishes in the breaststrokes in Tokyo last year.

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U.S. women’s basketball team scores most points in FIBA World Cup history

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SYDNEY — A’ja Wilson and the U.S. put on quite a show, breaking the World Cup scoring mark in a record rout of South Korea.

Brionna Jones scored 24 points and Wilson added 20 to help the U.S. beat South Korea 145-69 on Monday. Shakira Austin’s layup with 9 seconds left helped the Americans break Brazil’s record of 143 points set in 1990.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a team that can score the basketball like this,” Wilson said. “This is crazy, we put up 145 points. I think when you look at us and just knowing how talented we are, we just came together and we play together very, very well.”

The U.S. always has the most talented and deepest roster of any team in the World Cup with 12 WNBA stars on the roster. Still, the Americans had never come close to that sort of offensive output during it’s storied World Cup history. The previous team record was 119 points against Angola in 2014 and China in 2006. The scoring margin was also the biggest in U.S. history as well surpassing the 75-point win over Angola in 2014.

The win was also the 26th in a row in World Cup play for the Americans, who haven’t lost since the 2006 semifinals when they fell to Russia. The U.S. also won 26 in a row from 1994-2006. The Soviet Union holds the World Cup record with 56 straight wins from 1959-1986.

MORE: FIBA World Cup Results

What started with Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Sylvia Fowles has now been passed on to Breanna Stewart and Wilson. A legacy of excellence that doesn’t look like it’s ending anytime soon.

The U.S. (4-0), which has been playing stellar defense, was challenged by South Korea early. The teams were trading baskets for the first 8 minutes and it was tied at 21 before the Americans took control, scoring the final 11 points of the period.

Kahleah Copper came off the bench for the first time of the tournament and scored six points during that spurt. The Americans kept the streak going to start the second quarter, scoring nine of the first 11 points to put the game away.

By the time the game reached the half the U.S. was up 68-40, including scoring 44 points in the paint against the undersized Koreans.

“We were trying to get the ball inside,” Jones said. “We had an advantage there.”

The only suspense in the second half was how many records the Americans could break. They took down their own scoring mark on Sabrina Ionescu’s 3-pointer with 6:15 left in the game and kept putting up points with Austin’s layup capping off the contest.

Other records broken on Monday included the 62 field goals made, 36 assists and 94 points in the paint.

“Our size was a problem for them and I thought we shared the ball,” U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve said.

The Americans were well rested for the game after having their first day off of the tournament on Sunday.

Despite the rout, South Korea (1-3) can still advance to the quarterfinals with a win over Puerto Rico on Tuesday.

Leeseul Kang, who had 37 points in a win over Bosnia and Herzegovina, scored 10 points. Hyejin Park had 17 to lead the team.

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