Who is... Helen Maroulis
Name: Helen Maroulis
Country: United States
Weight class: Women's freestyle, 53kg (117 lbs)
- 2015 World Championships gold medalist
- 2014 World Championships bronze medalist
- 2012 World Championships silver medalist
- Six-time World Championships team member (2008, 2011-2015)
- 2011 Pan American Games champion
- Six-time U.S. Open champion (2009, 2011-2015)
Olympic history: Maroulis has not previously competed at an Olympic Games. She wrestled at Olympic Trials in 2012 but lost to Kelsey Campbell in the best-of-three final.
Olympic outlook: Fresh off her first world title in 2015, Maroulis has emerged as a dominant figure in women's wrestling. She currently has the longest winning streak (57 straight matches) of all American wrestlers, according to USA Wrestling's Richard Immel. However, Maroulis' success has primarily come in the non-Olympic weight class of 55kg (121 lbs). In Rio, she will be cutting weight and competing in the 53kg division, where three-time Olympic champion Saori Yoshida likely awaits. Yoshida has won a world or Olympic title for 14 consecutive years. While Maroulis has great odds of earning a medal, she will likely need to get through Yoshida in order to win gold.
How she qualified for Rio: A heavy favorite at Olympic Trials, Maroulis lived up to expectations in her new weight class. She won all five of her matches by technical fall -- outscoring her opponents by a combined score of 55-2 -- to earn the nomination onto the U.S. Olympic wrestling team. Two weeks later, Maroulis competed at an Olympic Games World Qualifying Tournament in Mongolia. Once again, she breezed through the bracket, winning two of her four matches by technical fall and another by pin, while only giving up two points to her opponents throughout the tournament.
How she got started in wrestling: "I started wrestling when I was 7 years old. My little brother just joined the team and he didn't have a partner, and my mom didn't want to make him quit. So she just said, 'Helen take off your shoes, jump in there and be a dummy.' So after two weeks of all this hard training, I went to my parents and said, 'This isn't fair. I'm doing what the boys are doing, but they get to compete and I don't.' So my dad made a bet with me that if I won my first match, I could continue wrestling. That was the only match I won all year."
Why she stuck with wrestling: "I was terrible at all other sports when I was younger -- I was asked to quit everything I ever joined. But when I started wrestling, I just always loved it and had so much fun. I think putting moves together for me is really this art form where you also get to be competitive. So I just looked at each challenge like putting a puzzle together... with your muscles."
Early days: In high school, Maroulis wrestled on the varsity team for three years, during which time she competed against boys. She became the first girl to place in a Maryland state tournament, taking sixth. Facing off against boys made her a better wrestler, but it wasn't without its challenges. Says Maroulis: "We had dual matchups, and a lot of the time, guys would forfeit to me. I think my sophomore year I had 10 forfeits in a row, and I was getting really upset because I hadn't wrestled a match yet. I've heard the rationale of why wrestling a girl is a lose-lose situation. But I just wish someone would've challenged them to just think about the bigger picture and really what the sport provides for you, and that's mental toughness, fortitude, overcoming obstacles. And sometimes we don't always get to choose what that obstacle is."
Wrestling style: "What makes wrestling so great to me is that it's so dynamic. From the strategy you take, to the body you have, to the type of style you use. So for me, I'm not the strongest wrestler or maybe the most physical, but I move very well, and I have good body awareness and very good leverage and pressure. So when I'm out there wrestling, I'll start putting pressure, pushing my opponent and wait for them to push back, and if I feel that they're pushing a lot of weight and probably leaning more-so on their feet, then I could move out of the way or take a sidestep, and they're going to keep going forward with their momentum. Then I can get behind them and score."
Preparing for Rio: The biggest challenge for Maroulis may come before she even steps onto a mat in Rio. While dropping down from 55kg to 53kg may not seem like a major difference to casual observers, it has required Maroulis to completely revamp her training program and place a bigger focus on her diet. Says Maroulis: "I couldn't figure out why [the new diet plan] was so challenging. I can go through practice after practice, training, sprints, anything, but it was just so difficult this past year. I've lost 10 percent body fat. My strength coach added so much -- I've learned about the science of eating healthy -- but it wasn't really natural to my personality to just wake up and have to time out every meal, every calorie, how many carbs do I get. I'm told that I have to earn my calories, I have to earn my meals. But it taught me a lot about myself and what's required. If you wanna be the best, you have to go where no one's willing to go."