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Helen Maroulis wrestled in the dark with concussion

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NEW YORK — Wrestler Helen Maroulis is on the short list of the world’s most dominant athletes.

She captured world championships in 2015 and 2017 without surrendering a point — a combined 87-0 in nine matches, winning the latter title with a torn thumb ligament. In between, Maroulis became the first U.S. female wrestler to take Olympic gold, beating arguably the greatest of all time in the final in Rio.

Maroulis compiled a 78-1 record over a three-year stretch competing at three different weights.

The 26-year-old was expected to extend that run of success in 2018. She flew to India in early January but did not return the same wrestler, the same person.

On Jan. 10, Maroulis competed for the first time since August in New Delhi. She was a headliner for the Haryana Hammers of the India Pro Wrestling League, a two-week, six-team event that receives national TV coverage in a country of 1.3 billion people.

Maroulis’ first opponent was Tunisian Marwa Amri, whom Maroulis mercy ruled 11-0 in the 2017 World Championships final. In this rematch, Maroulis remembered Amri stiff-arming her forehead in the first minute. Twenty seconds later, both of their heads rocked forward and collided.

Maroulis appeared briefly stunned. They let go. She touched the bridge of her nose and would do so again at stoppages throughout the period.

“It wasn’t anything crazy,” Maroulis said, emphasizing the stiff arms rather than the heads knocking. “I mean it was hard. I thought I broke my nose.”

Maroulis stopped motioning to her nose in the second period and pinned Amri. She moved to 79-1 in three years. She did a brief broadcast interview, sharing her pre-match music (“Relentless,” a Christian song), saying she looked forward to eating the local cuisine and, in Hindi, thanking the crowd.

What Maroulis didn’t share was that she wasn’t feeling well. It started way before the match, shortly after landing in India. Maybe it was the flu or just headaches. Perhaps the climate change or time change. Or the hotel. It lacked heat and water. She changed rooms.

“She felt so bad the day before the match,” said her coach, Ukraine native Valentin Kalika. “She started coughing and breathing hard. It was an unpleasant experience.”

So when Maroulis saw Kalika after that first match, she couldn’t say what exactly was wrong, but Kalika remembered that she said specifically that she didn’t think it was a concussion. Maroulis suffered one of those in 2015. She got hit on the side of the head, then four days later woke up with vertigo, saw a specialist, did some rehab and was back on the mat in a week.

On this day in India, Maroulis went back to her room after the win and slept. She stayed in bed for two full days before her next match but didn’t feel any better.

Maroulis did not look herself in that second outing. She was down 4-0 to a teenager from India after 100 seconds and stumbling on the mat. Kalika told her afterward that it looked like she wrestled drunk. Maroulis evened the match and eventually got the pin.

Then she spent almost all of the next four days sleeping in her room before her next match. Maroulis went down 7-0 and lost 7-6.

“Something really feels off,” she said. “I couldn’t even tell my body what to do.”

She was then diagnosed with a concussion.

“The doctor pretty much just gave me a bunch of medicine to take three to four times a day to mask symptoms,” she said. “I don’t think that’s what doctors in the U.S. would do. I’ve never had that experience before. Looking back, I’m not happy with that approach and the way that went.”

Maroulis called a doctor in the U.S. Over FaceTime, she failed a balance test trying to stand with her eyes closed and not fall over.

“It felt like somebody was trying push me over as hard as they can, yet when I do a one-legged squat, I had no issue,” she said.

Maroulis decided to take a week off — heck, it worked in 2015 — and come back for the final two matches of the Pro League. She spent much of that week in her hotel room surrounded by darkness and silence.

Maroulis believed either light or sound — maybe both — affected her. She felt at her worst just before her second and third matches when drummers played in the arena with lights flashing all over.

“The environment was too much for me,” she said.

Maroulis tried riding a stationary bike before her last two matches. She was fine while exercising, but as soon as she dismounted, felt like she needed a full night’s sleep. She wrestled the last two matches anyway, winning one and losing the other. She shouldn’t have.

“I wish I had known more about concussions,” she said. “I was trying to compare everything I had in 2015. What I learned from this past one is every single concussion is different. It’s not about how hard you get hit. You literally can barely get tapped and, for some reason, your symptoms are crazy. It’s not like I had some traumatic blow to the head.”

Maroulis rested five more days when she came home to New York City. She thought she was healed before getting checked out by a concussion specialist in California. She learned that she was still experiencing derealization.

“Talking and making eye contact were two of the worst things that I could do,” she said. “If I had more than three conversations a day, by the end of the night, I would get to this very weird place where I felt like my thoughts weren’t really my own.”

A doctor gave Maroulis prism-vision correction glasses  — she needed to re-center her visual field — and noise-canceling headphones.

“The second they turned [the headphones] on, it felt like immediate relief,” she said. Maroulis wore them the entire month of March. In her apartment. On airplanes. In church. “I didn’t realize how bad I had messed up my system,” she said.

All this time, Maroulis did not wrestle.

“It got to this point where I’m like, I don’t care about the wrestling anymore,” she said. “I knew wrestling was always going to end at some point, but I don’t want my life to be like this. I want to be normal. I want to be able to have conversations throughout the day, think the way I used to think and process the way I used to process.”

A doctor told Maroulis she could make a full physical recovery, but emotionally she might never be the same.

The head collision had impacted her brain’s emotional control center. Normally very emotional — Maroulis previously wrote that she’s afraid “of everything,” gets so anxious before matches that her face becomes numb and cries uncontrollably — she started thinking predominantly logically like never before.

Maroulis’ strength coach and sponsors recommended “brain products” — fish oil, magnesium, coenzyme Q10 and a supplement called Brain Restore. She also switched to a gluten-free diet.

“Checking all my bases,” she said.

Maroulis was cleared to work out, but in the dark and with no sound. Later, she was told to go into a coffee shop wearing the headphones and glasses and time how long she could sit before feeling symptoms. Maroulis did it, again and again, able to stay a little bit longer each time. Then she did it without the headphones.

On April 5, Maroulis returned to the mat. She did a light workout at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs with 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Clarissa Chun, who is now a coach.

They wrestled in the dark. Maroulis wore blackout glasses that emitted a flash of light every eight seconds.

“I felt like I was in a night club,” Chun joked, though it reminded her of doing judo growing up, when she would sometimes train while blindfolded.

For Maroulis, it felt closer to normal. They went head-to-head for five to seven minutes.

“I could see her excitement, you know?” Chun said. “She was saying she’s going to vlog her journey through this concussion.”

Maroulis ramped up, wrestling pretty much every day the next two weeks in Colorado and New York. She no longer requires the glasses or noise-canceling headphones. She plans to compete at the annual Beat the Streets meet in Manhattan on Thursday, five days after being cleared for a full return.

“I can be under fluorescent lights, on my phone screen,” she said. “It felt so good to make it normally through an entire day with sunlight, regular light, sounds, an elevator, whatever noise it is, a coffee machine going off.”

Maroulis knows that with every concussion, the more susceptible you are to getting another one. But she’s also learned preventative maintenance, such as vision training and isometric neck drills.

“I feel better than ever. I’m not happy at all that I got a concussion. Obviously, I would never choose to have that or to go through that again to learn anything, but I do believe that God works everything for good, and there is something to learn from it,” Maroulis said. “I feel like a brain expert now.”

Concussions are most associated with helmet sports like football and ice hockey, but wrestling is not immune. Jordan Burroughs, a 2012 Olympic champion and four-time world champ, said he’s seen wrestlers knocked unconscious in practices.

“The amount of shots that we take, head to head, with no type of protective covering, I’m sure wrestling has so many concussions, or at least minor concussions that go undetected,” he said. “The way I wrestle, I definitely use my head very often. … I’ve probably had a few concussions, but we’ll see. I’ll let you know in about 30 years. We’ll find out then.”

Maroulis’ last several years have been arduous, since not wanting to get out of bed after losing at the 2012 Olympic Trials to depriving her body to drop from 130 pounds to 116 pounds to make the Olympic weight to dethroning Japanese legend Saori Yoshida in Rio and then the life-altering head injury.

It may get tougher.

Maroulis expects her next mountain will be in the form of Kaori Icho, another Japanese icon. In Rio, Icho became the first woman to win individual gold at four Olympics in any sport. Icho has not competed since, but Maroulis expects her to come back. And when she does, to be in the same weight class as Maroulis.

Maroulis believes that because they trained together this week in New York, and Icho requested it be filmed on her camera. The 2020 Olympics are in Tokyo. Maroulis thinks of that prospect as “a dream.”

“Everything’s hard in its own way,” she said. “Those things I felt like I’ve conquered, that’s amazing, but now there’s new things.”

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Rafael Nadal can tie Roger Federer’s Slam record with 13th French Open

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For all of the many qualities contributing to Rafael Nadal’s unprecedented superiority at the French Open — the bullwhip of a high-bouncing lefty forehand, the reflex returns, the cover-every-corner athleticism, the endless energy and grit — there’s one element that stands above all the rest.

According to the opponent Nadal beat in the last two finals in Paris, anyway.

“You go into the match knowing that even your best tennis, even if you play it over three, four hours, might not be enough. I mean, if you do it, you maybe have a little chance, but you have to go to your limit on every single rally, every single point,” Dominic Thiem, who won the U.S. Open less than two weeks ago, told The Associated Press.

“That makes it not easy to go into the match,” Thiem said. “And that’s the mental part, I guess.”

When main-draw competition begins Sunday at Roland Garros, Thiem and every other player in the men’s bracket will be pursuing Nadal as the 34-year-old from Spain pursues history.

If Nadal manages to claim a 13th French Open championship — extending his own record for the most singles trophies won by anyone at any major tennis tournament — he would, more significantly, also collect his 20th Grand Slam title overall, tying Roger Federer’s record for a man.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Nadal’s tally elsewhere: four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, one Australian Open.

He spoke Friday in Paris about what “probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros” — a lack of matches in 2020; a new brand of tennis balls (“super slow, heavy”); cooler weather and plenty of rain in the forecast.

“But you know what?” Nadal said. “I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible.”

Asked recently about the possibility of catching the 39-year-old Federer, out for the rest of the season after a pair of operations on his right knee, Nadal expressed a sentiment he’s uttered before.

Climbing the Grand Slam list, Nadal said, is “not an obsession at all.”

“I know that you put a lot of attention on all of this,” he replied when the topic was raised last week at the Italian Open, Nadal’s first tournament since February because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Of course I would love to finish my career with 25, but (that’s) something that probably will not happen. I’m going to keep fighting to produce chances, and then when I finish my career, let’s see, no?” he said. “I just want to keep enjoying tennis. And that’s it. If I am playing well, I know I normally have my chances. If not, going to be impossible. That’s it.”

There is, of course, another great of the game playing during this era and, like Nadal, gaining on Federer.

That would be No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who had won five of seven major titles to raise his total to 17 before being disqualified at the U.S. Open for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball while walking to a changeover.

In this oddest of years, the Grand Slam season will drawing to a close in France; the clay-court major was postponed from May until now because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Roland Garros is the last Slam, the last opportunity of this season. So we all know who the main favorite is there: Obviously, it’s Nadal. And everything that he has achieved there, losing maybe a couple matches in his entire career on that court … is probably the most impressive record that anybody has on any court,” Djokovic said. “So, yeah, of course you would put him right there in front as a favorite to win it.”

For the record: Nadal has won 93 of 95 matches in the French Open and his last 21 in a row.

So what makes him so dominant there?

“He’s an unbelievably great tennis player. Probably on clay, a little bit better than on the other surfaces,” Thiem said. “He’s left-handed, which makes it very uncomfortable. And then his forehand, the topspin on the clay, it’s cruel to play.”

Thiem takes notes and hopes to emulate aspects of Nadal’s game.

So do others.

In Rome, for example, two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep and one of her coaches, Artemon Apostu-Efremov, caught one of Nadal’s training sessions.

“We were watching the way he hits the ball, the acceleration, the energy he has on the court and the way he practices 100%. It’s always an inspiration,” Apostu-Efremov said.

“This dedication on the court and focus on court,” he said, “it’s something that, for sure, could be transferred to Simona.”

Nadal wound up losing his third match in Italy, which is neither ideal form nor the sort of prep work he is accustomed to ahead of Roland Garros.

Still, Nadal at the French Open is unlike anyone else, anywhere else.

“Regardless of how he feels, I’m sure he’ll find a way,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 2019 Australian Open semifinalist seeded No. 5 in Paris. “He always finds a way, every single year. Clay is his surface. I’m sure he’s going to do well.”

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Skate America will not have fans

Skate America
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Skate America, the top annual international figure skating competition held in the U.S., will not have spectators in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25.

U.S. Figure Skating said the restriction was “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in strict accordance with the Nevada Gaming Control Board guidelines.”

Skate America is the first top-level event of the season, kicking off the six-stop Grand Prix Series leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, which is scheduled this season for Beijing.

The series has already been modified to restrict fields to skaters from the host country or to the event closest to their training location.

Grand Prix fields have not been announced, though two-time world champion Nathan Chen said last month he hoped to go for a fourth straight Skate America title.

Chen trains in California. Most, if not all, top U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada, which means they will compete in Skate America or Skate Canada if they participate in the Grand Prix Series at all.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough to compete on the Grand Prix until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

Skaters are limited to one Grand Prix start this season. In past seasons, they’ve typically competed twice.

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