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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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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