Adeline Gray celebrates winning her match at Wrestling World Championships on Oct. 23, 2018 in Budapest, Hungary.
Each month, Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Wrestler Adeline Gray was named Female Athlete of the Month for October 2018 after winning her fourth world title, tying a U.S. record. In Gray’s Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, the 27-year-old shares how a long injury setback helped her come back stronger.
When Adeline Gray woke up in a hospital bed the day before her 26th birthday, she knew immediately that something hadn’t gone to plan.
The surgery had been slated as a simple shoulder scope and cleanup, meant to alleviate the damage caused by a bad fall at the Grand Prix of Spain a month before the Olympic Games Rio 2016. That pain, radiating out from her right shoulder down into her chest, plagued her throughout her time in Rio, where her Olympic debut ended with a 4-1 loss to Vasilisa Marzaliuk of Belarus in the quarterfinals, a frustrating result for a three-time world champion who had gone undefeated in major international competition in the two and a half years leading up to the Games.
Before the surgeons put her under, Gray had been assured that she’d be able to move the joints before she left the surgery room. When she regained consciousness, she was groggy and in pain — and in a full body brace, her arms firmly strapped to her sides.
“Everything was just kind of gone all of a sudden,” she recalled. “It was definitely a bigger experience than we were expecting it to be.”
Pre-op, Gray had understood that she would be out for six weeks. The estimate turned out to be conservative: she did not wrestle again for nine months. Not wrestling meant she forfeited her place on the U.S. team and the stipend that came with it. To complicate things further, that 26th birthday the day after surgery also made her ineligible to get insurance coverage under her parents.
To go from newly minted Olympic athlete to helpless body who needs to be carried to the bathroom is a humbling experience. Back home, Gray spent all the hours of the day propped up on a couch or recliner.
“You can’t lay down for months after shoulder surgery. It’s insane. I don’t get how people get adequate recovery because you can’t sleep,” she said.
When she went in for her 10-week post-op appointment, the doctor told her everything looked great.
“Sir, I still can’t lay down. How can this be great?” she asked.
It might have been a bleak time, but a lifetime of wrestling had formed Adeline Gray to maneuver out of difficult spots. She didn’t languish for long.
“I committed to the fact that I wasn’t going to be doing the national team and was going to have to make other plans, other arrangements,” she said, “and that’s what I did.”
Gray and fiancée Damaris Sanders took advantage of her newfound free time to move up their wedding date to July 1, 2017, and Gray spent time planning the two-day festivities between sessions of rehab. Once she accepted that she wouldn’t be wrestling anytime soon, she began enjoying not having a deadline for when she had to be back on the mat.
“So often as athletes we say ‘Okay, I have two weeks to be hurt and then I need to be better,’ and you rush things without allowing yourself to listen to your body, knowing when to push and when to hold back,” she said. “So I got to actually take that time, and it was pretty amazing. I went into rehab some days and was like, ‘No, I’m not going to push it today, it hurts.’ And that would never have been an option if we were pushing for a deadline like making the national team in April or a finite moment where I had to be better.”
Her days filled up fast. Gray, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was a special guest at wrestling clinics and made her first forays into motivational speaking. She traveled, visiting friends in North Carolina, California and Washington, D.C. And she exchanged her high-intensity wrestling workouts for the easy steadiness of rehab, getting back to basics: yoga, walking and lighter lifting, the ensemble of which she describes as “what fitness magazines target for my age demographic.”
She did enjoy the results.
“I got a lot softer, a little more feminine,” she said. “I have a kind of strong boy body, and I thought that was just my body, but really it’s a lot of the hard work I put in. I didn’t have to work as hard in the gym, and I got to enjoy my body confidence.”
When Gray was still a junior-level competitor, world medalist Katie Downing let her in on a secret. Downing had jacked her own shoulder years before and opted not to have it surgically repaired.
“She said it was one of the best things that ever happened to her because she was never in a bad position,” Gray said. “She knew the second she got out of position she’d overextend it, so she always had to be tight and have her arms closer to her body. It was an amazing click to my head when I figured out that she could really be successful even with these injuries. That’s one of the best things about wrestling — that you can adapt and overcome with those.”
A refreshed, adapted Gray returned to her sport in October 2017. A year later, she was in Budapest, Hungary, for the world championships, going up against familiar faces — Estonia’s Epp Mae, the 2015 world bronze medalist, Olympic bronze medalist Elmira Syzdykova of Kazakhstan and finally Olympic champion Erica Wiebe of Canada — as she worked toward the 76 kg. final. By the time she squared off with Turkey’s Yasemin Adar with the gold medal at stake, Gray was cresting on a wave of momentum.
“I felt like I had already been there,” she said of her emotions in the matches before she captured her fourth world title, tying the record for an American wrestler. “When I got my draw, and it was one of the tougher draws you can have, I was like, ‘Oh, I did this in Tashkent in 2013. I’m good, I got this.’
“It just felt like every step of the way, I had really mentally already prepared for this moment. I got to go through and just be me, and execute my techniques and my moves. So far no one’s been able to stop my single or my leg lace, so I’m going to keep doing those until someone does.”