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Helen Maroulis wrestled in the dark with concussion

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NEW YORK — Wrestler Helen Maroulis is on the short list of the world’s most dominant athletes.

She captured world championships in 2015 and 2017 without surrendering a point — a combined 87-0 in nine matches, winning the latter title with a torn thumb ligament. In between, Maroulis became the first U.S. female wrestler to take Olympic gold, beating arguably the greatest of all time in the final in Rio.

Maroulis compiled a 78-1 record over a three-year stretch competing at three different weights.

The 26-year-old was expected to extend that run of success in 2018. She flew to India in early January but did not return the same wrestler, the same person.

On Jan. 10, Maroulis competed for the first time since August in New Delhi. She was a headliner for the Haryana Hammers of the India Pro Wrestling League, a two-week, six-team event that receives national TV coverage in a country of 1.3 billion people.

Maroulis’ first opponent was Tunisian Marwa Amri, whom Maroulis mercy ruled 11-0 in the 2017 World Championships final. In this rematch, Maroulis remembered Amri stiff-arming her forehead in the first minute. Twenty seconds later, both of their heads rocked forward and collided.

Maroulis appeared briefly stunned. They let go. She touched the bridge of her nose and would do so again at stoppages throughout the period.

“It wasn’t anything crazy,” Maroulis said, emphasizing the stiff arms rather than the heads knocking. “I mean it was hard. I thought I broke my nose.”

Maroulis stopped motioning to her nose in the second period and pinned Amri. She moved to 79-1 in three years. She did a brief broadcast interview, sharing her pre-match music (“Relentless,” a Christian song), saying she looked forward to eating the local cuisine and, in Hindi, thanking the crowd.

What Maroulis didn’t share was that she wasn’t feeling well. It started way before the match, shortly after landing in India. Maybe it was the flu or just headaches. Perhaps the climate change or time change. Or the hotel. It lacked heat and water. She changed rooms.

“She felt so bad the day before the match,” said her coach, Ukraine native Valentin Kalika. “She started coughing and breathing hard. It was an unpleasant experience.”

So when Maroulis saw Kalika after that first match, she couldn’t say what exactly was wrong, but Kalika remembered that she said specifically that she didn’t think it was a concussion. Maroulis suffered one of those in 2015. She got hit on the side of the head, then four days later woke up with vertigo, saw a specialist, did some rehab and was back on the mat in a week.

On this day in India, Maroulis went back to her room after the win and slept. She stayed in bed for two full days before her next match but didn’t feel any better.

Maroulis did not look herself in that second outing. She was down 4-0 to a teenager from India after 100 seconds and stumbling on the mat. Kalika told her afterward that it looked like she wrestled drunk. Maroulis evened the match and eventually got the pin.

Then she spent almost all of the next four days sleeping in her room before her next match. Maroulis went down 7-0 and lost 7-6.

“Something really feels off,” she said. “I couldn’t even tell my body what to do.”

She was then diagnosed with a concussion.

“The doctor pretty much just gave me a bunch of medicine to take three to four times a day to mask symptoms,” she said. “I don’t think that’s what doctors in the U.S. would do. I’ve never had that experience before. Looking back, I’m not happy with that approach and the way that went.”

Maroulis called a doctor in the U.S. Over FaceTime, she failed a balance test trying to stand with her eyes closed and not fall over.

“It felt like somebody was trying push me over as hard as they can, yet when I do a one-legged squat, I had no issue,” she said.

Maroulis decided to take a week off — heck, it worked in 2015 — and come back for the final two matches of the Pro League. She spent much of that week in her hotel room surrounded by darkness and silence.

Maroulis believed either light or sound — maybe both — affected her. She felt at her worst just before her second and third matches when drummers played in the arena with lights flashing all over.

“The environment was too much for me,” she said.

Maroulis tried riding a stationary bike before her last two matches. She was fine while exercising, but as soon as she dismounted, felt like she needed a full night’s sleep. She wrestled the last two matches anyway, winning one and losing the other. She shouldn’t have.

“I wish I had known more about concussions,” she said. “I was trying to compare everything I had in 2015. What I learned from this past one is every single concussion is different. It’s not about how hard you get hit. You literally can barely get tapped and, for some reason, your symptoms are crazy. It’s not like I had some traumatic blow to the head.”

Maroulis rested five more days when she came home to New York City. She thought she was healed before getting checked out by a concussion specialist in California. She learned that she was still experiencing derealization.

“Talking and making eye contact were two of the worst things that I could do,” she said. “If I had more than three conversations a day, by the end of the night, I would get to this very weird place where I felt like my thoughts weren’t really my own.”

A doctor gave Maroulis prism-vision correction glasses  — she needed to re-center her visual field — and noise-canceling headphones.

“The second they turned [the headphones] on, it felt like immediate relief,” she said. Maroulis wore them the entire month of March. In her apartment. On airplanes. In church. “I didn’t realize how bad I had messed up my system,” she said.

All this time, Maroulis did not wrestle.

“It got to this point where I’m like, I don’t care about the wrestling anymore,” she said. “I knew wrestling was always going to end at some point, but I don’t want my life to be like this. I want to be normal. I want to be able to have conversations throughout the day, think the way I used to think and process the way I used to process.”

A doctor told Maroulis she could make a full physical recovery, but emotionally she might never be the same.

The head collision had impacted her brain’s emotional control center. Normally very emotional — Maroulis previously wrote that she’s afraid “of everything,” gets so anxious before matches that her face becomes numb and cries uncontrollably — she started thinking predominantly logically like never before.

Maroulis’ strength coach and sponsors recommended “brain products” — fish oil, magnesium, coenzyme Q10 and a supplement called Brain Restore. She also switched to a gluten-free diet.

“Checking all my bases,” she said.

Maroulis was cleared to work out, but in the dark and with no sound. Later, she was told to go into a coffee shop wearing the headphones and glasses and time how long she could sit before feeling symptoms. Maroulis did it, again and again, able to stay a little bit longer each time. Then she did it without the headphones.

On April 5, Maroulis returned to the mat. She did a light workout at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs with 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Clarissa Chun, who is now a coach.

They wrestled in the dark. Maroulis wore blackout glasses that emitted a flash of light every eight seconds.

“I felt like I was in a night club,” Chun joked, though it reminded her of doing judo growing up, when she would sometimes train while blindfolded.

For Maroulis, it felt closer to normal. They went head-to-head for five to seven minutes.

“I could see her excitement, you know?” Chun said. “She was saying she’s going to vlog her journey through this concussion.”

Maroulis ramped up, wrestling pretty much every day the next two weeks in Colorado and New York. She no longer requires the glasses or noise-canceling headphones. She plans to compete at the annual Beat the Streets meet in Manhattan on Thursday, five days after being cleared for a full return.

“I can be under fluorescent lights, on my phone screen,” she said. “It felt so good to make it normally through an entire day with sunlight, regular light, sounds, an elevator, whatever noise it is, a coffee machine going off.”

Maroulis knows that with every concussion, the more susceptible you are to getting another one. But she’s also learned preventative maintenance, such as vision training and isometric neck drills.

“I feel better than ever. I’m not happy at all that I got a concussion. Obviously, I would never choose to have that or to go through that again to learn anything, but I do believe that God works everything for good, and there is something to learn from it,” Maroulis said. “I feel like a brain expert now.”

Concussions are most associated with helmet sports like football and ice hockey, but wrestling is not immune. Jordan Burroughs, a 2012 Olympic champion and four-time world champ, said he’s seen wrestlers knocked unconscious in practices.

“The amount of shots that we take, head to head, with no type of protective covering, I’m sure wrestling has so many concussions, or at least minor concussions that go undetected,” he said. “The way I wrestle, I definitely use my head very often. … I’ve probably had a few concussions, but we’ll see. I’ll let you know in about 30 years. We’ll find out then.”

Maroulis’ last several years have been arduous, since not wanting to get out of bed after losing at the 2012 Olympic Trials to depriving her body to drop from 130 pounds to 116 pounds to make the Olympic weight to dethroning Japanese legend Saori Yoshida in Rio and then the life-altering head injury.

It may get tougher.

Maroulis expects her next mountain will be in the form of Kaori Icho, another Japanese icon. In Rio, Icho became the first woman to win individual gold at four Olympics in any sport. Icho has not competed since, but Maroulis expects her to come back. And when she does, to be in the same weight class as Maroulis.

Maroulis believes that because they trained together this week in New York, and Icho requested it be filmed on her camera. The 2020 Olympics are in Tokyo. Maroulis thinks of that prospect as “a dream.”

“Everything’s hard in its own way,” she said. “Those things I felt like I’ve conquered, that’s amazing, but now there’s new things.”

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Helen Maroulis dominates for world title after making history in Rio

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Helen Maroulis, after becoming the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic wrestling title, had quite a year.

She grappled in a cage with Conor McGregor. She lifted Teddy Roosevelt. The Maryland native cracked steamed crabs with Cal Ripken Jr. And spent three months in Norway.

Then, she came back to competition. And dominated once again.

Maroulis won the world title at 58kg on Wednesday, mercy ruling all five of her opponents by a combined 53-0 margin and finishing the day with a torn thumb ligament.

“This was really special to me because I didn’t just go to Rio, do things right there and then come back and everything crashed and burned,” said Maroulis, who has won three straight global titles (the Olympics sandwiched by two worlds). “I heard people say everything in the book [after Rio]. Maybe I just had a good day or this or that. Three years in a row, I achieved the goal I set.”

The 25-year-old took seven months off after Rio — her coach told her that she might lose worlds because of it — but looked and felt reinvigorated on Wednesday.

“I was, like, counting down the days before Rio, like don’t focus on vacation after. I was so overwhelmed and tired,” Maroulis said. “But this, I’m like, man, I love this. I could do this all over again.”

She improved to a 78-1 record since taking bronze at the 2014 Worlds. Remember, Maroulis went 1-30 in her first year as a wrestler at age 7.

She’s the only American man or woman to win an Olympic or world title without surrendering a point in at least 30 years, doing so in 2015 and again Wednesday.

Maroulis, after a hard struggle to cut weight to 53kg for Rio, moved up two divisions (11 pounds) this year. By the numbers, she faced an easier road to gold.

Saori Yoshida, the three-time Olympic champion whom Maroulis dethroned at 53kg in Rio, and 58kg superstar Kaori Icho, the only woman to win four Olympic golds in an individual event, both sat out this year for Japan.

The top 58kg seed at worlds, Olympic silver medalist Valeria Koblova of Russia, bowed out of her opening match with a left knee injury.

Maroulis plowed the remaining field, winning her first four matches Wednesday by mercy rule to reach the final by a 42-0 point margin.

Also Wednesday, 20-year-old Becka Leathers took bronze at 55kg in her senior worlds debut.

Worlds continue through the rest of this week. Olympic bronze medalist J’den Cox goes Friday, and Olympic champions Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Snyder close out the competition Saturday.

A full broadcast schedule is here.

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U.S. Olympians reveal they have defective Rio medals

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Kyle Snyder made history at the Rio Olympics by becoming the youngest American wrestler to win a gold medal.

The medal will soon be history as well, to be replaced by the IOC and Rio organizers because of damage.

Snyder and Helen Maroulis, another U.S. gold medalist wrestler, are among a group of more than 100 athletes from around the world with defective Olympic medals. Beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh Jennings says her bronze medal from last summer is flaking and rusting.

Rio Games spokesman Mario Andrada said Friday that officials have noted problems with the covering on 6 to 7 percent of the medals.

“The most common issue is that they were dropped or mishandled, and the varnish has come off and they’ve rusted or gone black in the spot where they were damaged,” Andrada said.

Snyder, who wrestles for Ohio State, was 20 when he won his medal. He noticed an issue with his medal the day after he won it.

He went to a party at the Team USA house in Rio, where he said multiple people handled the medal as they celebrated. Snyder said he later discovered a scratch on the back of it, though he added there has been no further damage.

Snyder said he has until the end of the week to return his gold medal and has no idea when he’ll receive his replacement.

“It wasn’t too big of a deal,” Snyder said. “But since they’re giving me a new one, it’s kind of cool.”

Rio de Janeiro spent about $12 billion to organize the Games, which were plagued by cost-cutting, poor attendance and reports of bribes and corruption linked to the building of some Olympic-related facilities.

Nine months later, many of the venues are empty and have no tenants or income – with the maintenance costs dumped on the federal government. In addition to the issues with the medals, which featured the Rio and Olympic logos, the local organizing committee still owes creditors about $30 million.

Greg Massialas, a national coach for the U.S. fencing team in Rio, said in a message to The Associated Press that the silver medal son Alex won is damage free. He added that he hasn’t heard about any issues with other American fencers.

U.S. shooter Ginny Thrasher and boxer Claressa Shields, along with men’s tennis bronze medalist Kei Nishikori of Japan, also reported that their gold medals are intact.

Walsh Jennings, who won three golds in previous Olympics, says her medals tend to get beaten up because she doesn’t hesitate to let people touch them or try them on. But she won’t consider locking them up because people are inspired by them.

“They’ve offered to replace them. I’m not sure if I want to swap it out,” Walsh-Jennings told the AP, adding the reason was “100 percent sentimental.”

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