For all the wrestling achievements of top-ranked U.S. wrestler Helen Maroulis, her battles off the mat are equally impressive.
Growing up a girl in a boy’s sport wasn’t easy. There were more times than not when wrestling coaches refused to train her, when boys refused to wrestle her or when people yelled pejoratives at her from the stands. She remembers well when a prospective coach put three of his best guys on her and let her get beaten up for two hours so she would go away.
But Maroulis didn’t go away. Instead, the shy, really shy, actually petrified shy girl, who had quit every sport she tried, didn’t budge. In gymnastics, she had been afraid of backflips. In diving, she developed a fear of heights. Yet somehow, with the support of her parents, she battled through the then, often cruel world of girls’ wrestling.
“Once I started wrestling, I don’t even know how, but it gave me confidence and taught me about mental toughness,” said Maroulis, who was 7 when she started the sport. “My first coach was awesome, and I never knew that women’s wrestling was a taboo thing. But after a year he wanted to bump me up to a junior league.
“Looking for a team, it was like in every wrestling room I’d have to prove myself or I wouldn’t get help. A guy goes in and they teach him things. With a girl it was like, ‘Why do you think you should be here? You’re not good enough.’”
Maroulis, now 23, is ranked No. 1 in the country and No. 2 in the world in her weight class of 55 kg./121 lbs. She is a two-time world championships medalist, has won four WCWA collegiate women’s national titles and five U.S. Open national titles.
In September 2014, she won a bronze medal at the world championships, then went on to win her next four meets, including the Open Cup of Russia, the Dave Schultz Memorial and the Cerro Pelado International in Havana, Cuba, which was held in mid-February of this year.
“Helen has a different spirit, there’s an energy about her, “ said Terry Steiner, U.S. national women’s coach. “She’s hard on herself, but that what makes her so good.”
In 2012, though, Maroulis’ toughness was challenged when she was handed a loss that threatened to break her. Top-ranked entering the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, she failed to make the team.
“When she didn’t make that team, it was crushing to her,” Steiner said. “She said she didn’t know if she could still do it. She said, ‘What if I fail?’ And I told her that if she didn’t continue, that was a sure-fire way to fail.
“That moment right there, it will not define her, but it will make her who she is, who she becomes. She bounced back really well from that, but it took some time because she had to learn to believe in herself again.”
It was the hardest loss of Maroulis’ career, she says.
“My friend needed a warm-up partner, and she was wrestling the day after I lost,” Maroulis said. “I was so depressed and so upset and I woke up at 6 in the morning the next day and thought, ‘How am I going to walk into this dressing room and look everyone in the eye?’
“I messed up — I was the No. 1 wrestler and I lost. And I remember thinking, ‘If I don’t do this now, if I back down with this, I’ll back down at other things in life. And this is awful, and it’s going to hurt, but I’m going to look back and at least be proud that I showed up.’”
Earlier this year, United World Wrestling, the sport’s international federation, chose Maroulis as one of eight ambassadors from around the world to work with its two-month Super 8 campaign, which has promoted awareness of women’s wrestling to help grow participation. The campaign will conclude this week with the Women’s World Cup in St. Petersburg, Russia, in which Maroulis will compete.
Nationally, she has been a leader for USA Wrestling in promoting its ongoing Women’s Wrestling Week, which runs March 2-8 and includes opportunities for girls and women new and experienced.
“This has been extremely humbling to be chosen to help promote the sport,” Maroulis said. “I never would have realized that wrestling would have given me so many opportunities.
“The sport for women has done a complete 180 since I started. I am so supported by so many people across the nation and the world. I remember after not making the Olympic team I knew I loved the sport, but I didn’t know what to do. I had to reevaluate my life and change a bunch of things and decide to keep going. And it totally shaped me as a person.
“It is cool to have an outlet like wrestling where you can be challenged that way and it will teach you and grow you.”
Maryann Hudson is a freelance writer from the Houston area. She was previously an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She has written for TeamUSA.org and USParalympics.org since 2012 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.