Helen Maroulis

United World Wrestling

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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Helen Maroulis to miss world championships, eyes still on defending Olympic title

Helen Maroulis
United World Wrestling
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Helen Maroulis, the lone U.S. female wrestler to win an Olympic title, sat out this past weekend’s world team trials, which means she will not compete at the world championships in September.

Maroulis is working her way back from blowing out her right shoulder in a first-round loss at worlds on Oct. 24, after she returned from a concussion. She underwent surgery in November and was cleared to return earlier this spring before tweaking the shoulder again.

Maroulis said Friday she was cleared again to compete at trials but chose rest, recovery and her long-term health given what happened in 2018.

“It’s not coming from a place of fear,” she said. “I’m just not ready yet.

“If trials were end of June, everything would be perfect. I’m still feeling good and confident for 2020.”

As Maroulis stressed at 2018 Worlds, she prioritizes health over wrestling.

“Not just for myself, but to set an example because I get a lot of messages from kids on Instagram — I have a concussion, or my teammate has a concussion.” Maroulis said in October. “There’s this wrestler mindset to just push through — you’re the toughest, find a way to win. But there’s just a lot more to it.”

Maroulis, 27, put together one of the most dominant stretches in sport from 2015-17, going 78-1 overall among three different weight classes and going unscored upon at two world championships.

In between, she beat Saori Yoshida in the Rio Olympic 53kg final, preventing the Japanese legend from a record fourth Olympic title.

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Helen Maroulis’ world championships streak ends after life-altering year

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Helen Maroulis woke Wednesday and felt the best she had in a long time. That was a victory.

Maroulis, who in Rio became the first U.S. Olympic female wrestling champion during a run as one of the planet’s dominant athletes, was pinned this morning in her 57kg first-round match at the world championships in Budapest.

Maroulis gave up a point at worlds for the first time since 2014. She won her previous 10 matches by a combined 97-0, bagging two world titles while going 78-1 overall among three different weights in three years. No other U.S. wrestler had gone unscored on at an Olympics or worlds the previous 30 years. Maroulis did it in 2015 and 2017.

Then, on Wednesday morning in the Hungarian capital, Azerbaijan’s Alyona Kolesnik forced Maroulis onto her back, ending the match in the second of two three-minute periods.

Maroulis was reflective in the media mixed zone. She alluded to her brain injury. Maroulis suffered a concussion at a tournament in India in January. She came back in May, then delayed her world championships qualifying series from June 23 to Oct. 6.

Maroulis took 20 seconds Wednesday to wipe away tears after being asked if she had considered retirement.

“I feel really responsible to do the right thing for my health, not just for myself but to set an example because I get a lot of messages from kids on Instagram — I have a concussion, or my teammate has a concussion.” she said. “There’s this wrestler mindset to just push through — you’re the toughest, find a way to win. But there’s just a lot more to it. I want a long life. I really believe I’m doing everything in my power to get healthy. I also believe that if it ever came down to have to make that decision that I will do the right thing.”

Maroulis didn’t know if she would wrestle again while bedridden for “a lot of time” earlier this year. She is keeping the details of the last several months private. She returned to live practice about 10 days before her rescheduled qualifying series to make the world team Oct. 6.

“I remember walking around every day, just thinking I’m so broken in every way, shape and form,” Maroulis told media three weeks ago. “The one thing that my parents and loved ones kept reminding me is you’ll come out stronger for this. It was a hard, ugly, messy, tough process, but I definitely did. I’m really grateful that I get to wrestle.”

Maroulis froze in Wednesday’s match when Kolesnik smacked her in the head repeatedly.

“I’m so used to telling someone, hey, don’t touch my head,” she said. “I don’t think my head’s injured. I don’t think I injured my head during that match.”

Maroulis met her two primary goals for the year — healing from the brain injury and returning to make a ninth Olympic or world championships team. The third was to three-peat as world champion. She would have tied Tricia Saunders‘ American female record for most combined Olympic and world titles.

“I maybe should have waited a year to come back,” she said. “I’m really tying to consult, get the best wisdom and advice and knowledge from people and then with that make the best decision. … I really believe that I can come back. If not, then I believe that I’ll walk away with my head held high.”

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