|Helen Maroulis celebrates with coach Valentin Kalika after winning the women's freestyle 55 kg. gold-medal match at the 2015 World Wrestling Championships on Sept. 10, 2015 in Las Vegas.|
LAS VEGAS -- One point was all that stood between Helen Maroulis and a spot on the 2012 Olympic team.
In the second match of a best-of-three series against Kelsey Campbell in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials final, Campbell scored on a takedown for the only point of the match. It was enough to earn her the women’s 55 kg. spot over favorite Maroulis.
Three years later, that loss led to Maroulis’ biggest win – her first world title, which she won in dominating fashion Thursday night at the 2015 World Wrestling Championships in Las Vegas. The 23-year-old won the gold-medal match by technical superiority, 11-0, over Russia’s Irina Ologonova.
“It’s incredible,” Maroulis said of her win. “It’s always nice to put a tournament together. I did this for my family and for my coach, for my country, for God.”
Maroulis put this specific tournament together flawlessly, with no points scored against her in any of her four matches in Vegas.
The gold medal completes her collection of world championship medals, which includes silver from 2012 and bronze from 2014. This year’s tournament was Maroulis’ sixth world championships.
“I really wanted it,” she said. “I’ve wanted gold every time, I just didn’t get it. I really wanted it this time and I think I made the adjustments I needed to make in order to do that, thanks to having the people behind me that knew what I needed to do. I’m on Cloud Nine.”
The most important person backing Maroulis these days is her new coach Valentin Kalika, to whom she credits her win.
After her third-place finish at last year’s worlds, Kalika approached her.
“He came up to me and said, ‘I’ve been watching you all summer; I see that you work hard, I see that you want to get better but you just don’t know how. You don’t have the resources.’”
Maroulis joined Kalika on a three-week training trip to Russia with a few of his star pupils, including 2012 Olympian Elena Pirozhkova, two-time junior world champion Victoria Anthony and Aaron Pico.
That’s when she observed the Russian coaching system, where athletes pay their coaches and stay with them for their entire careers. It was a novel concept for Maroulis, who had just finished competing in the collegiate system at Simon Fraser University and Missouri Baptist University. Before that, she resided at the U.S. Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Michigan.
“Valentin and I talked at the end of the trip,” she recalled. “He saw that I wanted to do better, he believed in me and he offered to coach me and I’m extremely indebted to him for that.”
She says Kalika is the greatest technical coach she has seen in her 16-year career.
“He’s just a genius, the way he thinks,” Maroulis said. “He has a philosophy and he has a system and the way he shows you, you really have to trust him and believe in it. He helped me immensely with my technique, obviously if you look from last year to this year. I used something today that he showed me just last week.”
Kalika’s coaching wasn’t the only factor that led Maroulis to victory. Since that memorable loss in 2012, she has reevaluated her attitude toward the sport and changed her mental approach as well.
“I thought in my mind I did everything right,” she said of the 2012 version of hersel. “I was obsessed with wrestling – always had to be first in the gym, last out of the gym, getting every little advantage. But for me what worked best was taking a step back and realizing at the end of the day it’s just a sport and you have to find that zone.”
After three years, she still considers that loss the “worst and best thing” that has happened to her.
“(I learned to) just relax and appreciate that God gave me some talent and why waste it being nervous or having fear, so after I lost I really had to not so much fix things with wrestling, but fix things with myself and my personality. Was I negative or how did I view things because habits transfer over to other areas so it really helped not only make me a better wrestler but a better person, too.”
In becoming a “better person,” Maroulis has also become one of the biggest advocates for women’s wrestling. Earlier this year, she was chosen as one of eight wrestlers in the world to be the face of United World Wrestling’s two-month Super 8 campaign that was aimed at growing female participation in the sport.
“There’s so many girls who don’t make it to this level because they didn’t have the right opportunities when they were little – they didn’t have a club or a coach that believed in them,” Maroulis said, citing that only seven states in the U.S. have state-sanctioned women’s wrestling programs.
One major advancement women’s wrestling made internationally is the addition of two weight classes for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Since women’s wrestling was added to the program in 2004, men’s Greco-Roman and freestyle have each had seven classes contested while women’s freestyle had four. In Rio, each discipline will have six divisions.
While Maroulis’ favored weight of 55 kg. is not on the retooled Olympic program, she plans to cut weight and wrestle at 53 kg., and remains confident she can not only make the Olympic team, but also bring home Team USA’s first women’s wrestling gold medal.
In doing so, she will finally be able to shake the haunting loss from three years ago, which she still thinks about every day.
“It’s a constant reminder and it’s a good reminder,” Maroulis said. “In 2012, I think I felt like I needed that in order to feel worthy and now I just don’t have that pressure on me. I plan to win in 2016 because I love it and I plan to be the best at that weight so that’s what I’m going to train to do.”
Maroulis also believes that hosting the world championships on U.S. soil is the first of many steps toward growing the sport. This week’s competition marked the first time a combined men’s Greco-Roman, and men’s and women’s freestyle world championships was held in the U.S. In 2003, the freestyle-only world championships were held in New York.
In fact, she attributes the raucous crowd at Orleans Arena in Vegas – unlike any she has experienced before – to helping her reach the podium.
“I saw a lot of girls here with their faces painted and every coach that I’ve ever had since I started wrestling when I was 7 is here today,” Maroulis said. “I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to get on the mat and wrestle for them. …
“You zone in on the match, on the opponent, on the point, and then when you zoom out you see this whole stadium that might not know me but they cheer for me because I’m American and that’s a cool feeling.”