Vahe Gregorian

Becoming the best in women’s wrestling is special for Helen Maroulis

Helen Maroulis (left) celebrated after winning the United States’ first Olympic gold in women’s wrestling in dramatic fashion, defeating three-time Olympic champion Saori Yoshida of Japan on Thursday evening at Carioca Arena 2 during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Helen Maroulis (left) celebrated after winning the United States’ first Olympic gold in women’s wrestling in dramatic fashion, defeating three-time Olympic champion Saori Yoshida of Japan on Thursday evening at Carioca Arena 2 during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. deulitt@kcstar.com

Maybe you know a little girl like this, one who’s shy and sensitive and unsure of herself as she seeks to find something that moves her and allows her to start becoming who she is.

Helen Maroulis was like that at age 7 growing up in Rockville, Md., where nothing seemed to quite fit her skill set.

“I was the girl who was asked to quit ballet; the instructor said not to bring me back,” she said. “I cried all the time. I quit diving, because I was so afraid of heights I just stood on the diving board and cried.”

In gymnastics, she was afraid to try a backflip and, yep …

“I just cried,” she said, laughing.

So there was nothing inherently athletic or aggressive about Maroulis, nothing that suggested what was to come 17 years later:

On Thursday evening, she was draped in a U.S. flag, running around a Rio Olympics venue and weeping not because she couldn’t do anything right but because she had become the best in the world at something.

And it was the improbability of her path that she most wanted to convey after a monumental victory that represented the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling gold medal.

It was all the more meaningful because it was delivered against Japan’s three-time Olympic champion and 13-time world champ Saori Yoshida — considered by some the best in the history of the women’s sport.

“I want girls to know that whether you feel tough or not, confident or secure (or) insecure, wrestling can do wonders for your life,” Maroulis said, still overjoyed at a news conference hours later. “It’s shaped me so much.”

And vice versa.

After her 4-1 victory over Yoshida in the 117-pound weight class, Maroulis had reframed the state of the sport in the U.S., four years after wondering whether it was time to quit after she failed to make the 2012 London Games. The victory came against an opponent who’d pinned Maroulis the last two times they’d met.

“We all need to celebrate for Helen; this is a stepping stone for this sport in our nation,” U.S. women’s coach Terry Steiner said as he met the press afterward. “ … We needed it so very much.”

Sometimes you get what you want, too, instead of just what you need.

Maroulis was a worthy champion and example in more ways than one.

Even in her euphoria, she hugged the shattered Yoshida, and immediately afterward she spoke eloquently of the pure honor of competing against her.

“Yoshida is an incredible, incredible athlete; the more I studied her, the more it was like, ‘She is not my enemy, no one here is really my enemy,’ ” said Maroulis, the 2015 world champion at 121 pounds. “God taught me that these are women who want the same thing that you do and are sacrificing the same things that you are.

“It is not about hating that person you are going against, but it is about respecting that person so much that you are going to give your all.”

She would come to give her all to the sport despite some resistance on this front, too.

For that matter, it all started by quirk.

As she recalled it Thursday, her mom took her along to her brother’s wrestling practice when they didn’t have a babysitter.

Since there weren’t enough kids there that day, she told her to take her shoes off and jump out there.

Next thing you know, she’s back every day and after two weeks of drills and sprints and pushups but not getting to compete she told her parents, “This isn’t fair. I’m doing what all the boys are doing … but they get to compete, and I don’t.”

So her dad made a deal with her: She could wrestle one match, and if she won she’d get to continue.

As she looked back at her athletic pedigree, she realizes now that he figured she’d never have the nerve to get on the mat.

But she did, and she beat a boy, and for some reason it didn’t matter to her that she probably lost the other 30 matches she had that year.

She had found her thing, something she wanted to immerse herself in because of the physical challenge and the chess-like mental aspects despite all the things telling her she didn’t belong.

Having to wrestle nothing but boys, to begin with.

Or having boys forfeit to her.

And hearing the mean things people might say to someone different than what they were used to who just wanted to compete in what she loved and had no other place to do it.

So she’d follow her heart to Michigan and St. Louis (for a year at Missouri Baptist) and Canada and California in pursuit of not just this moment but as part of what she said in an interview last week:

Women can be in combat sports and still go to college and “be feminine if you want” and be strong if you want and “really own and be proud of your body.”

Still, no one would have blamed her if she stopped long before now.

Maybe the last crossroads was after London, when she said she had a “discussion” with God and sorted out whether to keep going.

It came down to this: Would you want to strive for Rio, even with no promise of gold or anything at all coming of it and you’re left broke paying for trainers and coaches and various living situations?

“ ‘Yeah,’ ” she remembered thinking, “ ‘I’m all in.’ ”

So she was at peace entering this day, in part from spending the last two weeks largely at the isolated Lonier Training Center working out and “staring at mountains.”

Then she climbed one you never could have seen coming … but turned out be there just waiting for her to seize.

“To get a gold medal around her neck, she had to do one thing,” Steiner said, “and that is believe in Helen Maroulis.”

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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