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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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Alysa Liu lands quad Lutz

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Alysa Liu, a 14-year-old who in January became the youngest U.S. women’s figure skating champion, on Saturday landed a quadruple Lutz, something no other U.S. woman has done in competition.

Liu landed the jump at the Aurora Games, a women’s sports festival in Albany, N.Y. It does not count officially, since it’s not a sanctioned competition.

Previously, Sasha Cohen landed a quadruple Salchow in practice in 2001, but never in competition. At least three Russian teens landed quads in junior competition in the last two years.

Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva became the first woman to land a clean, fully rotated quad in senior competition en route to silver at last season’s world championships.

Liu, who landed three triple Axels between two programs at January’s nationals, makes her junior international debut at a Grand Prix stop in Lake Placid, N.Y., next week.

She will not meet the age minimum for senior international competitions until the 2022 Olympic season. But she can continue to compete at senior nationals.

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MORE: 2019 Grand Prix figure skating assignments

Noah Lyles bests Bolt’s meet record in Paris Diamond League meet

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Noah Lyles set a meet record of 19.65 seconds to win the 200m with ease at Saturday’s Diamond League meet in Paris.

The previous record of 19.73 belonged to Usain Bolt.

Running out of lane 6, Lyles quickly made up the stagger on France’s Christophe Lemaitre and remained several meters ahead of world champion Ramil Guliyev of Turkey, who finished in 20.01.

Lyles’ time was especially impressive because several early races saw relatively slow times despite the elite fields in  the final Diamond League meet before the season-long circuit’s finals, which will be split between two meets Aug. 29 in Zurich and Sept. 6 in Brussels. The meet opened on the new track at Stade Charlety with temperatures in the upper 80s.

“I barely remember any of the race, to be honest,” Lyles said. “I was going around the track and before I knew it I was at the finish line. I was like, ‘Hold up — this happened too fast!'”

READ: Lyles overcomes 2017 heartbreak to reach first world championship

Meanwhile, several meet records fell in the field events, capped by a back-and-forth contest between U.S. triple jump rivals Christian Taylor and Will Claye, who have finished 1-2 in the last two Olympics and the 2017 world championships.

Taylor also won the world title in 2011 and 2015, and his personal best of 18.21m is the second-best of all time. Claye, who also has a long jump bronze medal from 2012 and two more world championship medals, is third on the all-time list at 18.14.

Through three rounds, Claye led by 1cm, 17.39 to 17.38. Taylor took the lead in the fourth, jumping 17.49. Claye responded with a jump of 17.71, just off the meet record.

Taylor broke that record in the fifth round, going 17.82. Claye immediately reclaimed the lead and took the record with a jump of 18.06. Taylor had a strong jump in the sixth round but had taken off just a bit over the line.

“This is the farthest I’ve ever jumped overseas, so it’s a great day,” Claye said.

Omar Craddock made it a U.S. sweep, jumping 17.28. Craddock joins Taylor, Claye and Donald Scott in the U.S. contingent for the Diamond League final.

Though Taylor has taken top honors in the big competitions, Claye has kept it close in the all-time head-to-head matchups between the two former Florida Gators, winning 23 of their 49 meetings.

READ: Taylor, Claye go 1-2 in second straight Olympics

A showdown between U.S. rivals and recent collegians Daniel Roberts and Grant Holloway failed to materialize in the men’s 110m hurdles.

Holloway had broken a 40-year old NCAA record in June, finishing in 12.98 to edge Roberts, who tied the old record in 13.00. Roberts then beat Holloway to win the USATF Championship in July.

Roberts held up his end Saturday, winning in 13.08, but Holloway lost his form late to finish sixth.

“It hasn’t been too hard for me to stay at a high level this long after NCAAs,” Roberts said. “A lot of people tell me after long seasons they feel it a little bit more but my body feels great, everything feels good and I’m just thankful to be here.”

Freddie Crittenden finished third with a personal-best 13.17 to take the last spot in the Diamond League final. Roberts also clinched a berth with his win, his first in Diamond League competition. Holloway was making his Diamond League debut and wouldn’t have made the final even with a win.

READ: Holloway beats Renaldo Nehemiah’s NCAA record in 2019 final

Olympic shot put champion Tomas Walsh of New Zealand beat his own meet record of 22.00m four times, winning with a throw of 22.44 in a contest with eight athletes throwing beyond the 21-meter mark for the first time.

American Joe Kovacs also beat the old meet record, finishing second at 22.11. Kovacs won the 2015 world title and was second to Crouser in the 2016 Olympics, then second to Walsh in the 2017 world championships. 

Ryan Crouser, whose 22.74 heave in April was the best result in the event since Randy Barnes set the world record in 1990, did not compete in Paris. Kovacs, Crouser and Darrell Hill will give the U.S. three of the eight slots in the final.

READ: Crouser passed up NFL shot, now aims at world record

U.S. pole vaulter Sam Kendricks also entered the meet record book, tying the previous mark with a clearance of 6.00m in an event with no Diamond League points.

The meet was the last chance for athletes to claim spots in the Diamond League finals, and some Americans qualified with clutch performances.

Hanna Green won the women’s 800m in 1:58.39 with a late surge to take the last spot in the final. Green’s win gives U.S. three runners in the event alongside Ajee Wilson and Raevyn Rogers, who went out quickly with the pace-setter Saturday and led through the 700-meter mark before fading to sixth.

U.S. high jump champion Jeron Robinson cleared 2.26m to tie for fourth and clinch his spot.

U.S. triple jumper Keturah Orji jumped a personal-best of 14.72m to take third place and secure a spot in the final. Orji’s jump is the second best in U.S. history. Venezuela’s Yulimar Rojas, the reigning world champion, won at 15.05.

In the women’s pole vault, world leader Jenn Suhr did not clear the first height she attempted but held on to a spot in the final. Canadian Alysha Newman upset the top two finishers in the last Olympic and world championship competitions Katerina Stefanidi of Greece and U.S. champion Sandi Morris. Suhr, Morris and Katie Nageotte will be in the final.

READ: Jenn Suhr ends retirement in 2018

In the women’s 100m, Olympic champion Elaine Thompson put a slight bit of daylight between herself and a tightly bunched group, finishing in 10.98. Thompson shares the world lead of 10.73 with fellow Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.

The next five finishers were separated by 0.04 seconds. Marie-Josee Ta Lou of the Ivory Coast took second in 11.13, followed by the Netherlands’ Dafne Schippers, U.S. champion Teahna Daniels and Aleia Hobbs

Hobbs, who did not qualify for the world championships after finishing sixth in the U.S. meet, will be the only American in the Diamond League final. 

READ: Hobbs upsets Thompson to win senior international debut

In the women’s 400m, Kendall Ellis was the only American to qualify for the final, finishing second behind Jamaica’s Stephenie Ann McPherson. Two U.S. runners followed  Shakima Wimbley and Phyllis Francis, who finished 10th in the Diamond League standings.

In the men’s 400m hurdles, world champion Karsten Warholm of Norway ran away from the field to win in 47.26, just shy of his world-leading time of 47.12. Americans TJ Holmes and David Kendziera finished fifth and sixth to secure places in the final along with Rai Benjamin, who didn’t race in Paris but has the second-fastest time in the world this year at 47.16. Ireland’s Thomas Barr finished atop the Diamond League standings despite finishing last in Paris.

In the women’s discus, Valarie Allman took fifth to ensure a U.S. representative in the final.

Neither of the U.S. runners in the men’s 3,000m steeplechase earned enough points to qualify, though Hillary Bor already had enough points to qualify.

John Gregorek hung on to the last spot in the men’s 1,500m despite not competing Saturday.

Canada’s Brandon McBride won the 800m, which didn’t count toward Diamond League standings, with U.S. runner Clayton Murphy fifth.

France’s Kevin Mayer won the triathlon, which combined the shot put, long jump and 110m hurdles. U.S. athlete Devon Williams tied for fourth.

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