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Helen Maroulis, after traumatic brain injuries, keeps on 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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Chock and Bates step out to slim lead over longtime rivals Hubbell and Donohue

Chock and Bates
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When this reporter asked Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, about the near decade-long rivalry that has shaped their ice dance careers, Hubbell laughed out loud.

“My rivalry with Evan Bates has been going on much longer than 10 years,” she said. “Don’t count the years, because we’re getting old.”

Hubbell, 28, was right, of course. Both she and the 31-year-old Bates hail from southeast Michigan, where they squared off in competitions throughout their childhoods. In 2005, the year Bates won the U.S. novice title with former partner Emily Samuelson, Hubbell and older brother Keiffer placed fifth.

Fast forward 15 years and they’re still at it. The teams have squared off at the U.S. Championships eight times; Chock and Bates hold a 5-3 edge in placements, but Hubbell and Donohue have won the last two U.S. titles. Along the way, each couple has won two world medals.

Since last season, they have trained together at Gadbois Centre in Montreal, sharing coaches Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer.

“(The two teams) are pretty much on the ice almost every day, at least one session at the same time,” Lauzon said, adding that he doesn’t plan it that way. “I rarely pay attention to whether they are training together or not. It more has to so with fitting with their own schedule, and which coach they have to see that day.”

“I think (training together) has really brought all of us up to the next level of skating,” Chock, 27, said. “We will continue to progress together for the rest of our careers, just because we respect each other so much. We look to each other in training for motivation, and it’s been really beneficial.”

Would either team be as successful, without the other couple to push them every step of the way?

“That’s a hard question to answer,” Lauzon said. “It’s a benefit when teams are able to train together and push each other. It definitely helps to keep yourself motivated and on the ice. Everyone in our centre so far has been able to cope pretty well with it, grow from the experience.”

On Friday, the teams squared off for the ninth time at a U.S. Figure Skating Championships, taking the ice in Greensboro, North Carolina for the rhythm dance event. Both skated upbeat, electric programs to musical theatre standards; this time, Chock and Bates prevailed, 87.63 points to 86.31.

“I think it’s as free and spontaneous as we’ve been in this program all season,” Bates said of the team’s routine to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot.”

It was not without error. Chock made a noticeable slip on a twizzle (fast turn) in a step sequence, but caught herself and quickly got back on track.

“I was trying to make sure my edge was deep enough,” she said. “I  just tipped over, and I was like, ‘at least this is an outside edge, it could be worse, keep going,’” Chock said.

The error didn’t drop the level (base value) of the element, but it probably cost a few points from the judges.

“It hurt a bit,” Lauzon said. “It hurt the GOEs (Grades of Execution), which I think were around +2. If they didn’t have it, they probably would have got some +4’s.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Hubbell and Donohue’s program to a Marilyn Monroe/Joe DiMaggio inspired medley showed off their star power and flowing edges.

“Zach and I went in with the intention of attacking the program,” Hubbell said. “We’ve been working a lot on speed and the dynamic quality of our skating. There were some technical mistakes today, but we’re glad to work those kinks out here. … Sometimes it’s good to get a wake-up call before the end of the year.”

Besides a few very minor slips on steps, the defending champions lost ground when the technical panel rated their straight-line lift Level 3, a shade lower than it usually merits.

“That was a surprise,” Lauzon said. “That lift has been in the program a while. It got the Level 4 everywhere else, so I was surprised to see that.”

The top two teams’ training partners in Montreal, Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, stole the show with their fast and fabulous rhythm dance to selections from Saturday Night Fever. The program earned 82.59 points and the only standing ovation of the event.

“We are focusing on not just the technical, but we want to have a lot of fun,” Baker said. “We want the audience to have just as much fun with us, have a three-minute break in their life and maybe enjoy the memories they have had with these songs, step away from their lives and have fun.”

“Even at seven in the morning, when it’s negative 10 degrees out in Montreal, there’s something about the music, the program, the genre,” Hawayek said. “Our mantra for the year with this program is ‘spark joy,’ and it most definitely sparks joy.”

Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko, who train in Novi, Michigan with Igor Shpilband’s group, sit fourth with 78.02 points. The first-year pairing of Caroline Green and Michael Parsons earned 77.42 points for fifth place.

Barring a large upset, after the free dance on Saturday, Hubbell and Donohue will win their third consecutive U.S. title, or Chock and Bates will reclaim the crown they won in 2015. And another chapter will be written.

“You know, it’s not that we’re skating against each other,” Hubbell said. “It’s just that we want to win, and they want to win, and there can only be one winner.”

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MORE: Gracie Gold in tears at figure skating nationals after emotional comeback

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Alysa Liu repeats as U.S. figure skating champion at age 14

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Alysa Liu became the youngest U.S. figure skating champion in history last year, at age 13. In her title defense, she learned late Thursday that another new experience was on the horizon.

She would go last in the senior nationals free skate Friday night in Greensboro, N.C.

For many skaters, that assignment is the most pressure-packed in the sport. Liu embraced the challenge, confident that it will not be the last time she is in that spotlight.

“I kind of mentally prepared myself the night before for the long wait, and I think that kind of helped set up for the long wait today,” she said late Friday, after becoming the first woman to repeat as national champ since Ashley Wagner in 2013.

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

The wait may have seemed longer after the penultimate skater, Mariah Bell, brought the house down with a clean program including seven triple jumps. Liu watched it. Even clapped along with the crowd.

Then Liu landed two triple Axels — as she did last year — and the first quadruple jump by a woman in nationals history (albeit under-rotated). Liu rallied from a short-program deficit and distanced Bell by 10.31 points.

“I guess I was kind of inspired by [Bell’s] emotion and her happiness,” Liu said. “I guess that inspired me at the end of my program to relax and be happy and just kind of be aware of the moment.”

Bradie Tennell, the short-program leader, dropped to third after falling on a triple loop.

The night’s emotional moment occurred two hours earlier. Gracie Gold, in her first nationals in three years, was brought to tears after coming back from an eating disorder, depression and anxiety.

“The full arena pulling for my existence, like, on the ice,” said Gold, who finished 12th, lacking the most difficult jumping combinations but determined to continue next season. “I want everything now when I demand it, but I have to remind myself of that it is a progression. And next, we just kind of keep the train going.”

More on Gold’s night, including video, here.

Nationals continue Saturday with the pairs’ free skate, free dance and the men’s short program, live on NBC Sports.

Liu won on her technical merit. No other active U.S. senior woman has landed either a triple Axel or a quad in competition. At least one is necessary to contend with the world’s best — Russians competing at the European Championships this week.

Liu is too young to compete on the senior international level until the 2022 Olympic season. She ranks third in the world among junior skaters this season, behind two Russians, going into March’s junior world championships.

Bell, the oldest skater in the last group at 23, had her best nationals result after bronze medals in 2017 and 2019. Much to the delight of her coaches at rink level — Rafael Arutunian and Olympian Adam Rippon.

Tennell, who couldn’t bend one of her arms on Wednesday, fell on the last of her 10 jumps in the free skate, a triple loop.

For the second straight year, Tennell topped the nationals short program, fell in the free skate and dropped down the podium. Stunning given Tennell broke through in the 2017-18 season as the only elite international skater without a fall going into the Olympics.

Bell and Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion, will likely make up March’s senior world team for a second straight year. A U.S. Figure Skating committee makes that decision, hoping the duo has combined results add up to no greater than 13 to ensure the U.S. gets three world spots in 2021.

Earlier, Madison Chock and Evan Bates topped the rhythm dance with 87.63 points, taking a 1.32-point lead over two-time defending champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue going into Saturday’s free dance. They could become the first U.S. skater, couple or pair to go five years between national titles in many decades.

Chock and Bates came out of the Sochi Olympics as the top U.S. couple, succeeding Meryl Davis and Charlie White. But they fell behind both Hubbell and Donohue and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani going into the PyeongChang Olympics.

After that, Chock underwent ankle surgery. The couple moved from Michigan to Montreal. They now train with Hubbell and Donohue and world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

“We’re just finding our groove right now,” Bates said. “It feels like we’re just having a bit of a renaissance with our career.”

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As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.