Helen Maroulis competes at the Women's Freestyle 53 kg Gold medal match at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 18, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Wrestler Helen Maroulis was on top of the world after winning an Olympic gold medal in 2016, but several years later her view from the mat was much different.
A pair of concussions and a neck injury had left her with symptoms ranging from severe noise and light sensitivity to fatigue to terrible anxiety attacks after just 20 minutes of wrestling. The PTSD she was experiencing got so bad that she even retired from the sport for a short time last year.
“The big thing for me was it just didn’t make sense that the sport I’d loved since I was a little girl had been replaced by these horrible memories and these symptoms,” said Maroulis, 29. “I just didn’t want to leave it on that note. I didn’t want my last memories on the mat to sum up the last 20 years. I had to heal through wrestling and heal with wrestling, and make my peace with it in order to move forward.”
Maroulis, who became the first American ever to win an Olympic gold medal in women’s freestyle wrestling, is now in a much better place with the sport she once again loves. She returned to competition in February, won a wrestle-off for the chance to compete at the Pan American Olympic Qualifier in March and won that to secure a quota spot at 57 kg.
She hopes to be the one to use that spot and return to the Olympics in Tokyo next summer.
Getting to this point, however, was no easy process.
In addition to the brain injuries, Maroulis also injured her shoulder competing at the world championships in October 2018. That was the last time she stepped on the mat for competition until last February’s wrestle-off.
Healing the shoulder was one thing. Healing the mind involved the help of specialists employing a multitude of treatments. She moved back home to Baltimore to live with her parents and began working with a neuropsychologist to root out why her lifelong passion was inducing such attacks.
Little by little, she felt better on the mat. Her symptoms eased, and she started to think about a comeback. After much prayer, journaling and speaking with doctors, Maroulis was ready. And once she committed to competing again, she decided not to question her decision no matter the outcome.
That doesn’t mean she didn’t have nerves before February’s competition.
“I think the more time that goes by that you don’t compete it gets harder to get back,” she said. “Competing is really humbling and it puts you in this different headspace. I just remember having these fears of what if I go back and I lose these two matches for this wrestle-off event? I was like, man, I’m going to feel like I’m washed up or a has-been or past my prime. All these silly thoughts and doubts came into my mind.”
Her fears were put to rest when she beat three-time world championships team member Jenna Burkert with two falls in two matches. Her wins at the Olympic Qualifier included a 12-2 victory over Canada’s Linda Morais, the 2019 world champion at 59 kg.
Then the world shut down.
Competition stopped and the Olympics were postponed, and at first it was all horribly disappointing. Maroulis was healthy and feeling good and wanted to keep going.
“(Olympic) trials were in a month and I was going to make the team, go to Tokyo and be done forever,” she said. “Now that I’m looking back, every month I have gains in my wrestling. Each month I feel like I have even more healing or something I didn’t have the month before.”
To keep her spirits and her fitness up while dealing with COVID restrictions, Maroulis has turned to dancing.
She took ballet and jazz when she was young, before wrestling, and in 2017 as she was working through injuries dance became her outlet. She started dancing on a ladies’ salsa team, and even now takes everything from salsa and bachata to ballet and hip-hop lessons via Zoom.
“With COVID everything had to move online but now I can take classes from all over the world and I’m geeking out about it,” she said. “I’m just such a fangirl on Instagram so I’ll watch these videos all day of dancers on YouTube and Instagram, find classes they’re teaching and sign up for them. I have a friend who comes over and we practice every week. I keep calling it training, like, ‘OK, we’ll train next week.’”
With everything Maroulis has been through since Rio, she said, she’s a more joyful, grateful and happier person than she was four years ago. She always appreciated life, but being at that low point where she had no control over her brain or body gave her a better understanding of what’s important.
“It’s just such a blessing getting to do this,” she said. “I feel like, at 29, I’ve had such a blessed life, such a good life. I have a great family, great people in my life, so many good memories, and even all the tough ones taught me so much, too. It’s all helped to make the journey better and make me better.”