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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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Weightlifting investigation finds doping cover-ups

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DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — An investigation into the International Weightlifting Federation has found doping cover-ups and millions of dollars in missing money, lead investigator Richard McLaren said Thursday.

McLaren said 40 positive doping tests were “hidden” in IWF records and that athletes whose cases were delayed or covered up went on to win medals at the world championships and other events. The cases will be referred to the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“We found systematic governance failures and corruption at the highest level of the IWF,” McLaren said.

The International Olympic Committee said it was studying the report “very carefully,” adding that “the content is deeply concerning.”

McLaren said former IWF president Tamas Ajan was “an autocratic leader” who kept the board in the dark about finances and left officials fearing reprisals if they spoke out. Ajan received cash payments on behalf of the IWF as doping fines from national federations or sponsors, the report said, but what happened to some of the money is unclear.

McLaren said $10.4 million was unaccounted for, based on his team’s analysis of cash going in and out of the IWF over several years. Ajan denies any wrongdoing.

The largest fine recorded in the report was $500,000 paid by Azerbaijan. It’s unclear how that payment was made. On one trip to Thailand for a competition and conference, Ajan collected more than $440,000 across 18 cash payments, according to the report.

“Everyone was kept in financial ignorance through the use of hidden bank accounts (and transfers),” McLaren said. “Some cash was accounted for, some was not.”

McLaren said that the investigation found information which law enforcement “might be interested in,” and that he would cooperate with any later investigations. That was echoed by Ajan’s successor at the IWF.

“The activities that have been revealed and the behavior that has occurred in the years past is absolutely unacceptable and possibly criminal,” IWF interim president Ursula Garza Papandrea said.

She added that the IWF will pass on information to law enforcement if it indicates there were “potential crimes.”

McLaren said Ajan “permitted the (federation) elections to be bought by vote brokers” as he kept the presidency and promoted favored officials. Large cash withdrawals were made ahead of federation congresses, McLaren said, adding that voters were bribed and had to take pictures of their ballots to show to brokers.

The 81-year-old Ajan stepped down in April, ending a 20-year reign as president and a total 44 years in federation posts. A month before that he also gave up his honorary membership of the International Olympic Committee.

In a statement to Hungarian state news agency MTI, Ajan said the IWF’s finances were managed in a “lawful” manner with oversight from the board.

“All my life, I’ve abided by the laws, the written and unwritten rules and customs of the sport,” he said.

Ajan accused McLaren’s team of not giving him enough information to respond to the allegations about his conduct.

Ajan was a full IOC member between 2000 and 2010, voting to select Olympic host cities. A previous complaint about IWF finances in 2010 was closed by the IOC.

McLaren’s investigation was sparked in January when German broadcaster ARD reported financial irregularities at the federation and apparent doping cover-ups.

The focus of the investigation was on the period from 2009 through 2019. McLaren said he heard allegations of misconduct dating back as far as the 1980s, but chose to prioritize more recent matters with stronger evidence.

The World Anti-Doping Agency said it welcomed McLaren’s findings.

“Once WADA has had the opportunity to review that evidence as well as the report in full, the Agency will consider the next appropriate steps to take,” it said in a statement.

Some allegations regarding doping misconduct around the 2019 world championships in Thailand and involving athletes from Moldova were passed to the International Testing Agency, which is still investigating.

McLaren, a Canadian law professor, was WADA’s lead investigator for Russian doping and has judged cases at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Weightlifting’s reputation under Ajan had already been hit by dozens of steroid doping cases revealed in retests of samples from the Olympics since 2008.

Since he left office in April, the IWF has begun moving its headquarters from Ajan’s home country of Hungary to the Swiss city of Lausanne, where the International Olympic Committee is based.

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Gwendolyn Berry gets apology from USOPC CEO after reprimand for podium gesture

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Olympic hammer thrower Gwendolyn Berry said USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland apologized to her Wednesday “for not understanding the severity of the impact her decisions had on me,” after Berry was put on probation last August for one year after raising her fist at the end of the national anthem at the 2019 Pan American Games.

“I am grateful to Gwen for her time and her honesty last night,” Hirshland said in a statement. “I heard her. I apologized for how my decisions made her feel and also did my best to explain why I made them. Gwen has a powerful voice in this national conversation, and I am sure that together we can use the platform of Olympic and Paralympic sport to address and fight against systematic inequality and racism in our country.”

Berry and fencer Race Imboden were sent August letters of reprimand by Hirshland, along with each receiving probation, after each made a podium gesture at Pan Ams in Peru.

This week, Berry tweeted that she wanted a public apology from Hirshland. That tweet came after Hirshland sent a letter to U.S. athletes on Monday night, condemning “systemic inequality that disproportionately impacts Black Americans in the United States.”

Then on Wednesday night, Berry said she had a “really productive” 40-minute phone call with Hirshland, USATF CEO Max Siegel and other USATF officials.

“I didn’t necessarily ask for [an apology] from [Hirshland],” Berry said Thursday. Berry said she lost two-thirds of her income after Pan Ams, that sponsors dropped her in connection to the raised fist fallout.

“We came to some good conclusions,” Berry said of the group call. “The most important thing were figuring out ways to move forward. [Hirshland] was aware of things that she did and how she made me feel about the situation, and I was happy that I was able to express to her my grievances and she was able to express to me how she felt as well about the situation.”

Berry said her probation, which is believed to still be in effect, wasn’t discussed. She made a point to say that USATF has always been on her side.

“The conversation was more for awareness purposes, and we’ll probably have more conversations this week,” said Berry.

Berry also plans to participate in a U.S. athlete town hall Friday.

“First and foremost, we should and we will discuss how people are just feeling and how people are holding up because athletes in general, because of the pandemic and because of everything that’s been going on, I know a lot of people are in distress, they’re sad, they’re confused,” she said. “I think that’ll be the main point of the discussion. Just to make sure everybody’s OK. Just to see how everybody’s holding on.”

On Aug. 10, Berry raised her fist at the end of the national anthem after winning the Pan American Games title.

The next morning, Berry said the gesture, which drew memories of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games, wasn’t meant to be a big message, but it quickly became a national story.

“Just a testament to everything I’ve been through in the past year, and everything the country has been through this past year,” she said then. “A lot of things need to be done and said and changed. I’m not trying to start a political war or act like I’m miss-know-it-all or anything like that. I just know America can do better.”

Berry said then that the motivation behind her gesture included the challenges overcome of changing coaches and moving from Oxford, Miss., where her family resides, to Houston.

“Every individual person has their own views of things that are going on,” she said. “It’s in the Constitution, freedom of speech. I have a right to feel what I want to feel. It’s no disrespect at all to the country. I want to make that very clear. If anything, I’m doing it out of love and respect for people in the country.”

Berry also said that weekend, according to USA Today, that she was standing for “extreme injustice.”

“Somebody has to talk about the things that are too uncomfortable to talk about. Somebody has to stand for all of the injustices that are going on in America and a president who’s making it worse,” Berry said, according to that report. “It’s too important to not say something. Something has to be said. If nothing is said, nothing will be done, and nothing will be fixed, and nothing will be changed.”

NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

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