Helen Maroulis woke Wednesday and felt the best she had in a long time. That was a victory.
Maroulis, who in Rio became the first U.S. Olympic female wrestling champion during a run as one of the planet’s dominant athletes, was pinned this morning in her 57kg first-round match at the world championships in Budapest.
Maroulis gave up a point at worlds for the first time since 2014. She won her previous 10 matches by a combined 97-0, bagging two world titles while going 78-1 overall among three different weights in three years. No other U.S. wrestler had gone unscored on at an Olympics or worlds the previous 30 years. Maroulis did it in 2015 and 2017.
Then, on Wednesday morning in the Hungarian capital, Azerbaijan’s Alyona Kolesnik forced Maroulis onto her back, ending the match in the second of two three-minute periods.
Maroulis was reflective in the media mixed zone. She alluded to her brain injury. Maroulis suffered a concussion at a tournament in India in January. She came back in May, then delayed her world championships qualifying series from June 23 to Oct. 6.
Maroulis took 20 seconds Wednesday to wipe away tears after being asked if she had considered retirement.
“I feel really responsible to do the right thing for my health, not just for myself but to set an example because I get a lot of messages from kids on Instagram — I have a concussion, or my teammate has a concussion.” she said. “There’s this wrestler mindset to just push through — you’re the toughest, find a way to win. But there’s just a lot more to it. I want a long life. I really believe I’m doing everything in my power to get healthy. I also believe that if it ever came down to have to make that decision that I will do the right thing.”
Maroulis didn’t know if she would wrestle again while bedridden for “a lot of time” earlier this year. She is keeping the details of the last several months private. She returned to live practice about 10 days before her rescheduled qualifying series to make the world team Oct. 6.
“I remember walking around every day, just thinking I’m so broken in every way, shape and form,” Maroulis told media three weeks ago. “The one thing that my parents and loved ones kept reminding me is you’ll come out stronger for this. It was a hard, ugly, messy, tough process, but I definitely did. I’m really grateful that I get to wrestle.”
Maroulis froze in Wednesday’s match when Kolesnik smacked her in the head repeatedly.
“I’m so used to telling someone, hey, don’t touch my head,” she said. “I don’t think my head’s injured. I don’t think I injured my head during that match.”
Maroulis met her two primary goals for the year — healing from the brain injury and returning to make a ninth Olympic or world championships team. The third was to three-peat as world champion. She would have tied Tricia Saunders‘ American female record for most combined Olympic and world titles.
“I maybe should have waited a year to come back,” she said. “I’m really tying to consult, get the best wisdom and advice and knowledge from people and then with that make the best decision. … I really believe that I can come back. If not, then I believe that I’ll walk away with my head held high.”
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