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

Helen Maroulis

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 18: Helen Louise Maroulis of the United States celebrates after defeating Saori Yoshida of Japan during the Women’s Freestyle 53 kg Gold medal match on Day 13 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 2 on August 18, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

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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.”

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