Helen Maroulis, after traumatic brain injuries, keeps on wrestling

United World Wrestling
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The Tokyo Games aren’t for another year, but Helen Maroulis already learned the toughest opponent to defending the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling gold medal. She believes she conquered it.

Maroulis was one of the world’s dominant athletes between 2015 and 2017. She won back-to-back world titles without surrendering a point and, between that, beat arguably the greatest wrestler in history for the Rio Olympic title.

Since, she suffered two traumatic brain injuries, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder and a weeklong inpatient program at a Utah hospital for psychiatric help. That’s in addition to thumb and shoulder surgeries.

“It’s scary to think I’m used to training for 20 years straight and going and winning an Olympic gold medal, and now it’s been three years of injuries and mental health issues and all these things,” Maroulis said last month, “but it doesn’t deter my confidence. I believe this is all part of my journey.”

Maroulis wondered if her career was over after a January 2018 concussion under strange circumstances in India. After a five-month recovery, she got back on the mat with eyes on a third straight world title. Then she suffered another, unspecified traumatic brain injury, which she didn’t previously discuss openly.

Maroulis said she was told (and still believes) that she was not more susceptible as somebody who had already suffered one brain injury.

“The way I got my second injury was not normal, and it wasn’t something really even sports related,” she said.

Maroulis, after a week at a University of Utah medical center in August 2018, earned late qualification in October for the world championships later that month. But at worlds in Budapest, Maroulis stunningly was pinned in the first round.

“I was healthy, cleared to compete, but I didn’t feel emotionally ready,” Maroulis said last month. “But what else do I do? I’m an athlete. Just with the PTSD and some of the triggers and the symptoms, I don’t think I was psychologically healthy enough.”

Even more surprising was that Maroulis blew out her right shoulder in that opening match. She was shocked, too. In a media scrum minutes later, she did not mention any physical pain tied to tearing a labrum, rotator cuff and bicep tendon.

“It’s not like my arm got ripped out,” in the match, Maroulis said last month. “It wasn’t really explainable. I didn’t have any existing injury there. There are studies that a lot of athletes will get a brain injury, concussion, and come back to sport, and they’ll end up twisting their ankle or blowing their knee out, injuring something, and a lot of that has to do with body and brain mapping.

“Your brain’s like a computer. So when one little glitch is there, you kind of have to rewire and make sure that everything is back on track working again.”

So Maroulis promised after the shoulder surgery that she would not return until 100 percent healthy, physically, mentally and emotionally. She chose to sit out this season’s world championships trials and will go more than one year between meets.

She started training in full in June after nearly a year and a half of different therapies and treatments. She visited doctors in California, Colorado and Utah before or after that brief comeback in October.

“It’s opened my eyes to trauma,” she said. “It’s not about how terrible something is that happened to you. It’s really just how you, personally, responded to it. Your brain and your body can’t always tell the difference. They don’t know if it’s a tiger jumping out at you or if you’re stressed because of traffic.”

Maroulis also moved her training base from New York City to Oklahoma. She works with coaches including John Smith, arguably the greatest U.S. wrestler in history with six combined Olympic and world titles.

“We weren’t scared it was going to happen again,” said Smith, who did not have major head injuries in his career. “We kind of look at it the opposite, like this is a great opportunity for you and for us to bring you back at full strength and let the world know that you’re back.”

Smith said that Maroulis had one unspecified setback this summer, but he expects her to be ready to compete by the U.S. Open in mid-December.

“This isn’t a sport where you’re going to remain healthy each and every month,” Smith said. “It’s no big deal. Move forward.”

Maroulis gains confidence from every time she’s banged her head in practice and not felt effects. Doctors told her she is not prone to concussions and that she can return 100 percent free of symptoms. Her biggest fear was that she would not.

“I want to raise kids, have family, grandchildren,” she said. “One of the things the doctors reassured me of, and again there is a lot of research to be done, but the brain and the body are so resilient.”

Maroulis is treating 2020 as if it will be her last Olympic run. She learned just how much can change in a four-year cycle. Don’t take it for granted.

In 2012, Maroulis lost in the Olympic trials final but still traveled to London to serve as a sparring partner for the woman who beat her. By 2016, she defeated arguably the greatest wrestler in history, three-time Olympic gold medalist Saori Yoshida of Japan, in the Rio final.

“It’s just so different this time around, as you get older, and especially with all the injuries,” said Maroulis, who turns 28 in three weeks. “I’m treating 2020 like it’s the end, but as my mom tells me, and she really knows me best, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 2022, you decide to come back.”

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