RIO DE JANEIRO — When the horn sounded, Helen Maroulis looked stunned. And for good reason.
The 24-year-old had just won the first-ever Olympic gold medal for the U.S. in women’s wrestling. To achieve it, she had to defeat three-time Olympic and 13-time world champion Saori Yoshida from Japan.
It really was David taking on Goliath.
“Anyone can win it, that’s what I told myself,” Maroulis said. “I just didn’t want to look at Goliath and get scared.”
And Maroulis won Olympic gold in a new weight class. The 2015 world champion in the 55 kg. division, Maroulis had to drop two kilos (4.41 pounds) in the past year to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games.
In 2013, the international wrestling federation added more weight classes for women in freestyle wrestling at the Olympic Games — to add parity with the men’s program. They added 53 kg. and 58 kg. divisions but in the process, dropped the 55 kg. class.
Yoshida also dropped from 55 kg. to 53kg. But the Japanese wrestler dropped the weight earlier, winning the past two world titles in the lighter weight class.
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For Maroulis, the weight loss was the hardest part of her journey to Rio. She worked with a nutritionist, ate a lot of chicken and spinach, measured all her food, and ate peanut butter as a treat.
“And I don’t even like peanut butter,” she admitted.
She skipped Christmas dinner and bailed on social evenings out.
“I knew that the diet was going to challenge me like nothing else could because it’s a 24-7 ordeal,” she explained. “With wrestling, it’s two hours a day or four hours a day, and if you make a mistake that’s fine. You still have the rest of the day to do some other stuff or get over it. With the diet, if you mess it up, that’s it. There went that day.”
She practiced hard, then focused on not eating anything outside of her strict diet until it was time to go to bed. Then she would get up the next day and do it all over again. By the time she arrived in Rio, she was dreaming of vacationing in Greece and eating crepes.
“I have to give a huge thank-you to my parents and coaches and everyone who put up with me because honestly, I was just grumpy all the time,” she admitted. “I was always hungry.”
But her hunger for an Olympic gold medal overrode her hunger for chocolate and cake. And she and coach Valentin Kalika began working on how to beat Yoshida. He tightened up Maroulis’ technique on the matt, and they watched film of Yoshida.
“Can’t get a gold medal without going through her,” Valentin told Maroulis.
The American wrestler also traveled to Japan and attended a training camp. She realized that “these women win for a reason” — through hard work and good technique. Maroulis realized she could benefit from a similar program, and it worked. In the past two years, she has been undefeated.
She also learned to admire Yoshida, not fear or loathe her.
“Yoshida is an incredible athlete,” Maroulis said. “The more I studied her, the more I was like, she’s not my enemy. No one here is my enemy. I think God really taught me that — that these are just women who want the same thing that you do and who are sacrificing the same things that I am.”
But as the Rio Games approached, Maroulis was striving for perfection — and becoming increasingly anxious that she was not achieving it.
“Finally I was like, you know what, I’m not going to find it,” she realized. “So what I have is enough, and I trust God that what I have is enough.”
As she walked into the Olympic arena and stepped onto the mat, she said over and over again, “Christ is in me, I’m enough.”
“That was one of the most freeing things that I’ve ever said,” she said. “Just because I was like, yeah, I don’t need to be perfect.”
Yet against Yoshida, she was perfect, scoring a takedown with 59 seconds to go in the match. Maroulis won, 4-1.
"The opponent is stronger than me,” Yoshida said in tears after the match. “I should have attacked sooner and faster but the opponent was stronger than me."
For Maroulis, it was an honor to wrestle Yoshida, she said. She even forgot that she was competing for an Olympic gold medal.
“I’ve dreamed about this whole match so much that I was just wrestling her,” Maroulis said. “And then when it was done, I was like, ‘Oh, I get a gold medal now. Cool.’”
Some were comparing Maroulis’ win to Rulon Gardner taking down Aleksandr Karelin, the undefeated “Russian Bear” in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 2000 Olympic Games. It was the first Olympic gold medal for the U.S. in the Greco-Roman discipline.
But Maroulis did not want to make the comparison.
“I know that Saori had three gold medals and multiple world titles,” she said. “I knew that wrestling her was going to be a very big task, and I just wanted to do my best to give my all.”
She has not had time to absorb what she has accomplished. Asked what she wants now, she replied, “A buffet.”
And those crepes in Greece.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Rio covering her fourth Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.