Helen Maroulis poses for a portrait at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 9, 2016 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
The stage was set for a magical night at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
An enthusiastic crowd of 6,000 fans filled the stands on a late August evening at Carioca Arena 2 in Brazil. A huge group of photographers stood mat side ready to capture history.
Women’s wrestling legend Saori Yoshida of Japan, a 13-time world champion, walked onto the mat seeking her record fourth Olympic gold medal, and her first in the 53 kg. weight class.
But American Helen Maroulis had other ideas. The 2015 world champion at 55 kg., who had been pinned in two earlier matchups with Yoshida, rallied for a stunning 4-1 win over the Japanese star in the 53 kg. finals.
Maroulis and Yoshida both fell to the mat just a few feet away from each other as the match ended, both overcome by emotion.
After her hand was raised, Maroulis ran around the mat holding an American flag above her head in celebration. It was one of the signature moments of the 2016 Games.
“It was a dream come true,” Maroulis said. “All of my training was focused on beating Yoshida, and it paid off for me.”
Rio marked the fourth Olympic Games for women’s wrestling, and Maroulis’ was the first gold medal in the discipline for the United States.
“It was an outstanding accomplishment,” U.S. national coach Terry Steiner said. “What Helen did was huge for our program and has had a big impact on the sport. Women’s wrestling is growing, and Helen’s win is certainly helping with that. She beat the best wrestler of all-time.”
So what does the 25-year-old Maroulis do for an encore?
She’s back competing again and will represent the U.S. at the world championships, set for Aug. 21-26 in Paris.
Maroulis took seven months off after the Olympics, including spending three months in Norway with her boyfriend, before resuming training.
“I’ve never taken that much time off before,” she said. “It was great to be able to take a break. I could’ve taken the year off, and I struggled with that. But I felt like I was ready to come back.”
Maroulis also has bumped up two weight classes to 58 kg. She dominated the competition at the U.S. World Team Trials this past spring in Las Vegas before rolling to a title in a pre-worlds tournament in Poland.
The move up in weight classes suits Maroulis well.
“I had to be incredibly disciplined to make 53 kilos — it was a very tough cut and I had to make a lot of sacrifices,” she said. “I’m so much more comfortable and so much stronger now at 58 kilos. I feel great. I’m loving it. I’m not cutting weight anymore.”
Maroulis also has emerged as the face of women’s wrestling in the U.S., as the first American Olympic champion in her sport.
“I do feel a responsibility to encourage young girls and to help grow the sport,” she said. “Hopefully, what I did will inspire other girls to do the same thing.”
Steiner said the turning point in Maroulis’ career came when she was upset by Kelsey Campbell in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
Maroulis bounced back to win her first world medal, a silver, later that year at the 2012 world championships in Edmonton, Alberta. She followed with world bronze and gold medals before her triumph in Rio.
“The best thing for Helen was not making the Olympic team in 2012,” Steiner said. “That loss really pushed her and drove her. She came back with a different mindset once she moved past a crushing defeat and the emotional turmoil. She showed me a lot by the way she came back.”
Maroulis plans to compete through the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. She now trains at the new Olympic regional training center in New York City.
“It’s going to be another interesting journey all over again,” she said. “I’m excited and looking forward to seeing what happens.”
She followed her personal coach, Valentin Kalika, to New York after previously training with him in Los Angeles.
“Valentin’s been amazing,” Maroulis said. “It’s meant so much to have him in my corner. He’s an awesome coach. He’s helped take my wrestling to another level.”
Even though Maroulis took a significant amount of time off after the Olympics and has changed weight classes, Steiner still likes his star wrestler’s chances in Paris.