RIO de JANEIRO — There are stories that come along at the Olympics that are so thoroughly wonderful that at some point they become too much. They are like a chocolate overdose. Rulon Gardner was such a story. In 2000, after Gardner shocked the previously unbeatable wrestler Aleksandr Karelin in what still might rank as the greatest Summer Olympic upset ever, we would learn that:
— Gardner had never done a press conference before.
— He grew up on a dairy farm in Wyoming.
— The farm was, according to his mother, “near where Wilford Brimley fishes — you know, the Quaker Oats guy?”
— His town was the sort of town where the morning radio broadcaster reads off all the town’s birthdays every day.
— Rulon first displayed his superhuman strength at a young age (again, according to his mother) by carrying two milk buckets instead of one.
— He practiced by wrestling cows.
— His father had sold famous “sausage stew” at the Lincoln County Fair in order to raise the money so he could come to watch.
As I told fellow writer Chuck Culpepper at the time: “I really didn’t need that stew.”
So here in Rio we have another one of those almost-too-wonderful American Olympic stories. Helen Maroulis’ upset of Japanese legend Saori Yoshida was not as shocking as the Gardner victory over Karelin. Maroulis, unlike Gardner, came in as a world champion (albeit in a different weight class). She, unlike Gardner, was widely considered a medal contender, even if few expected her to win gold. And Yoshida, unlike Karelin, had begun to show slight signs of decline.
BUT … even if it isn’t quite as surprising as the Gardner story, Maroulis’ journey to upsetting an Olympic icon and becoming the first American woman to win a wrestling gold medal is every bit as magical.
Helen Maroulis was 8 or 9 years old when she realized how much she enjoyed wrestling. She was good at it. Her father, Yiannis, had taught wrestling to Helen and her two brothers, and they all liked it. But she was the prodigy. She had this natural sense of opponents’ weaknesses, and her body naturally moved to expose those weaknesses. It’s a funny process, growing up. As a child, you search and search for those places where you feel most empowered and most comfortable, where you feel like you belong. Helen Maroulis found her place younger than most. She just knew it inside: She belonged on a wrestling mat.
And, of course, nobody else thought so.
Girls didn’t wrestle in Maryland, where she grew up. They really didn’t wrestle many places at all in America. After a short while of wrestling stirring her soul, Yiannis and her mother Paula made her quit. What was the point, anyway? Women’s wrestling wasn’t an Olympic sport. It couldn’t get her a college scholarship. It was a dead end, and there is no time in life for dead ends. She quit the sport, the only thing that had made her feel really free.
And then, a few months later, a minor miracle happened. Women’s wrestling was added to the Olympics. Her parents came back to her and said, “OK. Why don’t you wrestle. Who knows? Maybe you can make it to the Olympics.”
“But adding wrestling to the Olympics didn’t really change my situation,” Helen says now. “Wrestling in Maryland was still an all-boy sport. I had to wrestle with boys. I had to prove myself again and again, and it sometimes took a lot longer to prove myself than I thought it should have.”
Well, of course it did. She was the lone girl in a sport that requires contact. She was battling against the human condition. And, oh yeah, she was battling against boys who, in ways they could not even explain fully, desperately DID NOT want to lose a wrestling match to a girl.
She endured because she loved the sport. This was the point. She was not trying to be a pioneer, not trying to carry any banners or fight for any causes. She wanted to wrestle. This was just what she had to do.
You should know a little something about Saori Yoshida. She is a big celebrity in Japan. She does commercials. She carried her nation’s flag for the 2012 Olympics. Her father, Eikatsu Yoshida, was a wrestling champion and coach. He taught his two sons the sport. He had no intention of teaching his daughter, but he saw how Saori kept correcting her brothers’ mistakes and kept diving in to show the right way.
“That,” Yukyo Yoshida, Saori’s mother, said in a wrestling documentary, “is when my husband told her, ‘Why don’t you give it a try.'”
Eikatsu soon realized that it was Saori who had the true spirit of a wrestler. She won her first international competition at 13. Soon after, she broke her wrist before a major tournament but refused to pull out. She won the tournament. “It’s crazy for someone to compete with an injury like that,” Yukyo said, “but that’s when she started to become mentally tough.”
Saori loved winning and hated losing in equal measure. While her extraordinary wrestling teammate Kaori Icho (who won her fourth gold medal these Olympics) wrestled for some of the mystical reasons that have come to be associated with Japanese sport — excellence, self-improvement, the never-ending pursuit of perfection — Saori mostly wrestled to win. To achieve. To conquer.
“Only if you win the world championship are you the best in the world,” she said before her first world championship. “So I have to win.”
“When she lost,” her mother said, “she cried like a child.”
Saori Yoshida rarely lost. She won 13 world championships and three Olympic gold medals. And she remained driven, remained hungry for more. Like the great Karelin when he went for his fourth Olympic gold, Yoshida shut out her first three opponents in Rio.
And then she faced Maroulis for gold. There was no reason at all for Yoshida to believe she could lose.
When they first wrestled, back in 2011, Maroulis was still just a kid, and Yoshida was at the height of her powers. It went exactly as you might expect. Yoshida pinned Maroulis in 69 seconds. And, as if that wasn’t humiliating enough, Maroulis also tore the UCL in her left elbow in the match. “Yeah,” Maroulis says. “It didn’t go very well.”
The second time they wrestled, at the world championships in 2012, it went exactly as you might expect. Yoshida pinned Maroulis in four minutes. Friends pointed out the improvement. Friends also pointed out (in an encouraging way) that Yoshida was the greatest wrestler of them all, all but invincible.
Maroulis did not buy it.
“I’m going to beat her,” Maroulis told herself.
They did not wrestle again for a long time — three years. Maroulis did go to a training camp in Japan where she was overwhelmed not only by Yoshida but by all the Japanese wrestlers there. “I don’t think I had a takedown the entire time,” she says. “But I learned a lot about myself.”
Yes, a lot changed over the next three years. For one thing, Maroulis began working with Valentin Kalika, a former wrestler and coach from the Soviet Union. “He’s a genius,” Maroulis says. Together, they watched video of Yoshida.
And something funny happened. Yes, of course, they were watching the video to pick out her weaknesses, of course, to develop a game plan to beat her. But as time went on, Maroulis began watching Yoshida in a whole other way.
“When you watch that much video of an opponent,” Maroulis says, “you want to think of that person as the enemy. But with Yoshida, I didn’t feel that way. You could see the love she felt for wrestling pour out of her. You could see how much she put into the sport. I felt in awe of her. It’s hard to explain … I felt inspired by her.”
Maroulis grew stronger and better. Last year, she won the 55kg (121 lbs) world title. It was an extraordinary achievement for a girl who had grown up wrestling with boys in Maryland … BUT … she did not face Yoshida. Yoshida was in the 53kg (117 lbs) weight class.
And this was meaningful. The Olympics do not have a 55kg weight class.
This was a big deal. Maroulis would have to drop down to 53kg — and frankly it wasn’t that easy for her to drop down to 55kg. She bulks up very easily; after putting on a ton of muscle last year, she was up to 63kg, roughly 22 pounds over the weight she would need to achieve to wrestle at the Olympics.
So she suffered. It’s a common wrestler story, but it was particularly difficult for Maroulis. She so starved herself to cut weight for these Games that she spent most of her time in Rio pinning delicious looking food items on Pinterest that she intended to eat after finishing.
“I honestly did not know if I was going to make weight,” she said. She worried that she would be the biggest failure at the Olympics.
Of course she did make weight, and she convincingly won her first three matches. Then in the fourth, she faced Sweden’s Sofia Mattsson, widely viewed as Yoshida’s biggest threat. Mattson had lost to Yoshida by just one point in the 53kg world championships a year early.
Maroulis pinned her.
And that set up the match she has been dreaming about against Yoshida.
OK, do you remember the feeling you had when Usain Bolt got the baton in the 4×100 medley relay? He got the baton, and he was about even with the lead. And then he took off, like a 3D character leaping off the screen, and those handful of seconds were like the downhill rush of a roller coaster.
Do you remember the feeling you had when you saw American Abbey D’Agostino stop to help up New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin after the two collided and fell? “Get up,” D’Agostino said. “We have to finish this.” And they did finish, with Hamblin waiting at the line to cheer on D’Agostino as she limped badly toward the finish line.
Do you remember the feeling you had watching American swimmer Katie Ledecky pull away, watching South African runner Wayde Van Niekerk run 400 meters at full speed, watching American gymnast Simone Biles defy gravity? How about the feeling of watching long-injured Argentinian tennis player Juan Martin del Potro bashing forehands from another planet against Novak Djokovic or the feeling of watching that Tongan flag bearer, Pita Taufatofua, walking with such joy and pride while his oiled-up muscles flexed at the Opening Ceremony?
Do you remember the feeling you had as Michael Phelps was Michael Phelps one more time?
This is why the Olympics still enrapture us, why the corruption and greed and cost and drugs and hypocrisy that haunt the Olympics time after time offend us and challenge us but they do not discourage us. It’s the athletes, their stories, their passion, their resolve, their extraordinary triumphs that bring us back and make us feel just a little bit more alive.
When Helen Maroulis grabbed the arms of Saori Yoshida at the start of their gold medal match, she knew right away that something was different. She could feel Yoshida give way just a little bit. Yoshida is 33. Maroulis is 24. “The opponent,” Yoshida would admit after the match, “was stronger than me.”
Yoshida scored first, but Maroulis felt a calm come over her like she’d never felt before. “I knew from watching her that she is very patient,” Maroulis said. “She is used to her opponent panicking. So I thought, ‘What will she do if her opponent is as patient as she is?'”
Maroulis scored a takedown on a twisting move (“Hey, that worked!” she thought afterward) and took a 4-1 lead into the final seconds of the match. And then it was just a matter of holding off a legend. Maroulis, who has relied on her faith to take her through so many of the hard times, repeated her mantra to herself: “Christ in me, I am enough. Christ in me, I am enough.”
She was enough. She won the gold medal. She screamed for her mom, who had never stopped believing.
And do you remember the feeling you had when you saw the medal ceremony? It was one of the most amazing scenes of these Olympics. Maroulis was in tears after victory. Yoshida was in tears after defeat. Everything in sports was there on display. Yes, this is why the Olympics still enrapture us.
After it was over, Yoshida began to reconsider her retirement plans — she does not want her extraordinary career to end like that. But this is life, this is how extraordinary careers end. “I am in awe of her,” Maroulis says. “I’m just honored I got to wrestle her.”
And Maroulis? Well, she began thinking about food more or less the second the medal ceremony ended. “Why don’t we take it slow,” her nutritionist advised over the phone.
“Yeah,” Maroulis said, “about that, I’m already halfway through a bar of chocolate.”
So, yes, Helen Maroulis ate friend chicken and pizza and chocolate, and she fully expects that at some point in the next few days her body will make her pay for those rash food choices. But what the heck, right? These are the Olympics. “It will be worth it,” she says.