Even though she won't be on the mat in Paris, U.S. wrestler Adeline Gray still has plenty of positives to look back on from this latest Olympic cycle.

A six-time world champion and two-time Olympian, Gray is the most decorated woman in U.S. wrestling history — she's collected a total of nine medals at various world championships plus an Olympic silver medal — and would have been among the medal favorites once again at the summer's Paris Games.

But at U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials in April, Gray's Paris bid came to an end when she lost to 20-year-old Kennedy Blades in the best-of-three championship series.

With that result, Blades will represent the U.S. in the women's freestyle 76kg weight class, while Gray will serve as the alternate and ponder her next move.

Gray has been a U.S. wrestling mainstay for much of the last decade.

At the time of the 2016 Rio Games, she was one of the most dominant female wrestlers in the world but was surprisingly defeated in the quarterfinals of the Olympic tournament. Five years later, she reached the gold medal final at the Tokyo Olympics, ending up with silver after a loss to Germany's Aline Rotter-Focken.

Since then, it's been an eventful Olympic cycle for Gray, who gave birth to twins in July 2022. She knew that returning to peak form would be a challenge, and the fact that there were only three years between Olympics instead of four — a result of the Tokyo Games being delayed a year due to COVID-19 — only made that challenge even harder.

Even so, motherhood managed to reinvigorate her love for wrestling.

"Coming back after the babies has been so special," Gray said. "I've had numerous times where I've been frustrated with wrestling and had it become more of a job. Post-babies, I've had a lot more joy with the sport and had a better balance of my life and wrestling."

After having the twins, Gray was diagnosed with an abdominal separation which prevented her from training. She also lost a lot of weight and struggled to recapture her muscle mass and tone, putting her at a disadvantage against other wrestlers in her class who are used to training at heavier weights. And, all the while, she had to balance her training with the responsibilities that come with raising young children.

It wasn't until January 2023, six months after giving birth, that Gray stepped back on the mat for the first time. She returned to competition that April for nationals but was still dealing with pain and knew that she hadn't built back her defense yet. She ended up losing to a young up-and-comer: Blades.

The two wrestlers were no strangers to each other. While serving as an assistant coach at Wyoming Seminary, Gray had the opportunity to coach Blades, who was a high schooler at the time.

One day while Gray was preparing for the world championships, the program's head coach suggested that she wrestle Blades. 

"I started to kind of beat her up a little bit too much," Gray recalls of the "big sister" treatment she gave Blades during their sparing session that day.

"I felt a little bit bad through this workout, but it's good to feel that level," Gray said. "She needed to feel that this was where she was going to have to be in order to make these teams and to win medals."

After nationals, Gray heard a lot of talk about a "changing of the guard" taking place, but she didn't buy that narrative.

"Hold on, I just had a baby," Gray said at the time. "Let's give it a second."

And indeed, Gray got her revenge at Final X later that year, beating Blades in the final and therefore earning a spot on the U.S. team for the 2023 World Championships. Gray proceeded to win bronze, her first medal as a mother, at worlds in September.

Which brings us back to the rematch at Olympic Trials. Blades dominated her way through the challenge tournament, once again putting her head-to-head with Gray, who had a bye into the best-of-three final. This time the victory went to Blades, who won 11-6 in the first match and 8-3 in the second match.

"It's sad not making an Olympic team," Gray said. "It's a goal I set out, and it was a lofty goal. I knew when I had the twins during a shortened [quadrennial] that there was a chance I wasn't going to be ready to make the team. There was a lot of hope going into [Trials] that I was ready, and I felt as prepared as I could be."

Afterward, Gray had nothing but praise for her former mentee.

"She was able to control the pace of the match," Gray said. "It's impressive, she's able to take very good shots and choose her moments and dictate how to control the center of the mat when she needs to. It was more than I was ready for."

She also has high expectations for Blades at the Paris Games.

"I really think she can be a medal contender," Gray said. "The women in my weight class at the Olympics are going to be very tough, and I think she's going to have to get better this summer before she can get a medal. But she's also capable of that. She is an athlete, and I think she can sharpen up some of those other toolsets to go out there and represent our country well."

As for Gray, the obvious question is what comes next. There are several tournaments coming up later this year, including World Team Trials ahead of October's world championships, that she could potentially enter. But as of now, she's undecided on whether she'll participate.

"It could be that we take another path and take the summer off and enjoy some time and let the body heal up and decide what those next steps are," she said. "Whether they be to have another baby or train for a world championship next year, I think I have a lot of paths that I can walk right now. I'm just going to sit down with my family and myself and figure out what the best path for me is."

Whatever she decides, Gray knows she's already left an indelible mark on women's wrestling. She's been a huge advocate for the sport for a long time and has been able to see its growth first-hand.

"Watching the growth of women's wrestling has been really beautiful," she said. "I think the thing I'm doing the most right now is making my career the best that it can be and showing people that you can have a full life here."

"I don't think the previous generation before me understood that they did have that opportunity. I see a lot of women looking within wrestling at what I'm doing — I did get my undergrad, I got my masters done, I got married, I had my twins, I came back and had success. I think people are looking at this as a kind of case study and saying, 'This is possible for us to have our lives and have our careers within wrestling.' I think that's important for equality."

Among the women motivated by Gray's story is the U.S. wrestling legend herself.

"I just keep looking back at how far I've come," she said. "I've inspired myself a lot during this journey just because I've been able to mentally not be broken by this tiny little step that I had to take and just continue to move forward every single time and show up for myself, even if it wasn't the elite athlete Adeline Gray going out there. It was this kind of broken-down mom who was tired and weak. And I still showed up and tried again."

"I owe a lot to wrestling for showing me that it's okay to show up a little bit weaker and still figure out a way to win, to still show up that day and get better, even if it is 20 steps lower than you thought it was going to be."