Helen Maroulis, trailblazing Olympic wrestling champion, back at trials after briefly retiring

Helen Maroulis
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Helen Maroulis had enough. She grabbed her phone, called her mom and said it: I’m retiring.

That was a year and a half ago. Maroulis, who in 2016 became the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic wrestling title, was by the end of 2017 one of the world’s dominant athletes not only in her sport, but also across all sports.

Life changed on Jan. 10, 2018. Maroulis suffered a head injury in a match in India. She endured most of 2018 and 2019 sidelined by concussions, shoulder surgery and post-traumatic stress disorder.

She spent days in dark, silent rooms. She wore noise-canceling headphones and special glasses. At its worst, she didn’t recognize her own reflection in the mirror.

It got really bad after her last concussion in August 2019. She wondered if she would ever return to a normal life.

“I just decided that I wanted to be done with wrestling at that time,” she said last week.

But Maroulis is not done with the craft that she’s loved since going 1-30 in her first year at age 7. Following her brother onto the mat, she bet their dad that if she won her first match, she could continue. It turned out to be her only victory all year.

Now 29, Maroulis is out of a brief retirement and the favorite to win her division at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials in Fort Worth, Texas. She has a bye into Saturday’s finals. A full broadcast schedule is here.

She said her head is 100 percent, and it has been that way for a while. She’s never felt better.

“I’m still fast. I’m still strong, and I think I’m still really great at wrestling,” she said. “At least that’s my hope.”

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That 2019 phone call with her mom, Paula, helped keep her in the sport. Maroulis wanted to turn to dancing. Her mom said two things. 1) If you’re fearful of getting injured again, go ahead and retire. 2) Do I think you can win another gold medal? Absolutely. 

“That just kind of broke me,” Maroulis said, recalling tears. “I don’t want to stop too soon.”

Maroulis, during the short retirement, continued her recovery with sports medicine staff while visiting family in Maryland for Christmas 2019. She began feeling better and, early that winter, ventured down the street to The Capital Wrestling Club.

“Go visit, give back, maybe get a workout in. Didn’t have any expectations,” Maroulis said. “I knew that I still had symptoms, so I knew wrestling wouldn’t be good for me.”

She drilled for 20 minutes, then went home and lay in bed for an hour or two while an anxiety attack passed. She prayed. She asked the doctors and therapists if returning to wrestling gradually might dissipate the symptoms.

“I just kind of thought a lot of the trauma happened in wrestling, and I think I just need to go back and be on the mat and figure it out,” Maroulis told Flowresting in a video interview two months ago. “Could I retrain my brain to not freak out in any wrestling environment or situation?”

Over a few weeks, Maroulis spent more and more time at the club. And less and less time feeling off afterward. By Feb. 8 of last year, with medical approval, she wrestled the top U.S. woman in her weight class for a spot in an Olympic qualifying tournament. Maroulis pinned her in both matches in her first competition in 16 months.

“I’m still that little girl that fell in love with the sport that’s going to live it until the day I die,” she said then. “If I can have one more opportunity to enjoy that, then I’m going to do it.”

Then Maroulis went to the Olympic qualifier in Canada and won that, earning the U.S. a quota spot for the Tokyo Games just before the pandemic stopped sports. And earning herself a bye into the finals of the Olympic trials, which were postponed by a year to this Saturday.

She said she pushed herself in training enough times in the last 14 months, without repercussions, to know that she’s normal again.

“Everything that I went through has made me 1) stronger and 2) better prepared for this,” she said last week. “Being bedridden and just not knowing if I was ever going to compete again, I think, really freed me up to appreciate every little moment and to not take anything for granted. Just going through the fire and coming out of it, and coming out of it not just alive, but thriving.”

ON HER TURF: Where are the heavyweights? Wrestling weight classes exclude larger women

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Mark McMorris breaks Winter X Games medals record with slopestyle gold

Mark McMorris
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Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris broke his tie with American Jamie Anderson for the most Winter X Games medals across all sites, earning his 22nd medal, a slopestyle gold, in Aspen, Colorado.

On the final run of Sunday’s contest, McMorris overtook Norway’s Marcus Kleveland with back-to-back 1620s on the last two jumps. McMorris’ last three Aspen slopestyle titles were all won on his final run (2019, 2022).

“It’s something I never thought would ever come to me as a kid from Saskatchewan,” McMorris, 29, said on the broadcast. “Everything’s just been a bonus since I became a pro snowboarder.”

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression of their best run over the course of a jam session rather than scoring individual runs.

McMorris won his record-extending seventh X Games Aspen men’s slopestyle title, one day after finishing fourth in big air.

“It just keeps getting crazier because I keep getting older,” he said. “People just keep pushing the limits, pushing the limits. Last night was such a downer, almost bums me out, like, dude, do I still have it? … To have one of those miracle wins where you do it on the last run and someone makes you push yourself, those are the best feelings.”

McMorris won slopestyle bronze medals at each of the last three Olympics and reportedly said last February that he was planning to compete through the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games.

Canadian Max Parrot, the 2022 Olympic slopestyle champion, is taking this season off from competition.

Anderson, a two-time Olympic snowboard slopestyle champion, is expecting her first child.

Later Sunday, U.S. Olympian Mac Forehand won men’s ski big air with a 2160 on his last run, according to commentators. It scored a perfect 50. Olympic gold medalist Birk Ruud of Norway followed with a triple cork 2160 of his own, according to commentators, and finished third.

Canadian skier Megan Oldham added slopestyle gold to her big air title from Friday, relegating Olympic champion Mathilde Gremaud of Switzerland to silver.

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Ilia Malinin wins U.S. Figure Skating Championships despite quadruple Axel miss

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One year ago, Ilia Malinin came to the U.S. Championships as, largely, a 17-year-old unknown. He finished second to Nathan Chen in 2022 and was left off the three-man Olympic team due to his inexperience, a committee decision that lit a fire in him.

After the biggest year of change in U.S. figure skating in three decades, Malinin came to this week’s nationals in San Jose, California, as the headliner across all disciplines.

Though he fell on his quadruple Axel and doubled two other planned quads in Sunday’s free skate (the most ambitious program in history), he succeeded the absent Chen as national champion.

Malinin, the world’s second-ranked male singles skater, still landed two clean quads in Friday’s short program and three more Sunday. He totaled 287.74 points and prevailed by 10.43 over two-time Olympian Jason Brown, a bridge between the Chen and Malinin eras.

“I think I was just not ready to deliver at that day,” Malinin, who was bidding to become the second man to land six quads in one program after Chen, said on NBC. “I was really so confident, I think I sort of overthought everything and tried to get ahead of myself. But I think it’s all right.”

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Results

Brown, a 28-year-old competing for the first time since placing sixth at the Olympics, became the oldest male singles skater to finish in the top three at nationals since Jeremy Abbott won the last of his four titles in 2014. As usual, he didn’t attempt a quad but had the highest artistic score by 9.41 points.

Brown’s seven total top-three finishes at nationals tie him with Chen, Michael WeissBrian Boitano, David Jenkins and Dick Button for the second-most in men’s singles since World War II, trailing only Todd Eldredge‘s and Hayes Jenkins‘ eight.

“I’m not saying it’s super old, but I can’t train the way I used to,” Brown said after Friday’s short program. “What Ilia is doing and the way he is pushing the sport is outstanding and incredible to watch. I cannot keep up.”

Andrew Torgashev took bronze, winning the free skate with one quad and all clean jumps. Torgashev, who competed at nationals for the first time since placing fifth in 2020 at age 18, will likely round out the three-man world team.

Japan’s Shoma Uno will likely be the favorite at worlds. He won last year’s world title, when Malinin admittedly cracked under pressure in the free skate after a fourth-place short program and ended up ninth.

That was before Malinin became the first person to land a quad Axel in competition. That was before Malinin became the story of the figure skating world this fall. That was before Malinin took over the American throne from Chen, who is studying at Yale and not expected to return to competition.

Malinin’s next step is to grab another label that Chen long held: best in the world. To do that, he must be better than he was on Sunday.

“You always learn from your experiences, and there’s always still the rest of the season to come,” he said. “I just have to be prepared and prepare a little bit extra so that doesn’t happen again.”

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