After upsetting three-time Olympic champion Saori Yoshida at the 2016 Rio Games to become the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic wrestling gold medal, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Helen Maroulis would be back for the Tokyo Games.
But two serious concussions led to Maroulis being diagnosed with PTSD, and she briefly retired before deciding to return to the mat. And while Maroulis didn’t capture a second gold medal in Tokyo, the bronze she won carries a special significance considering everything she’s been through between Olympics.
— Olympics (@Olympics) August 5, 2021
“This is a gift,” Maroulis told Sports Illustrated before defeating Mongolia’s Khongorzul Boldsaikhan in dominant fashion Thursday morning in the 57-kilogram weight class; she won gold five years ago at 53kg. “It’s great to be able to do what I love. If you told me a year ago I’d be this healthy, that I could come back, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
Maroulis won the match 11-0, her second shutout in her last three matches. Her only loss in Tokyo came to Japan’s Risako Kawai, who went on to win the gold medal over Belarus’ Iryna Kurachkina. Kawai also won gold in Rio at 63kg.
So that makes two Olympic medals for the 29-year-old Maroulis in a sport that also helped her develop a relationship with God, and it was her faith that brought her back to wrestling after her concussions.
In 2010, one of her coaches invited Maroulis to go to church. She told Sports Spectrum she was planning on sleeping through the service but heard a sermon about love that “totally rocked [her] world.”
Her walk with the Lord began that day and Maroulis has since become outspoken about her faith, regularly mentioning it in interviews as well as on social media.
“Who am I, Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?” -2 Samuel 7:18 🙌🏼
— Helen Maroulis OLY (@helen_maroulis) April 4, 2021
✌🏼 days until I wrestle off for a spot on the World Team. Finally, after waiting months to heal from a traumatic brain injury, I get to step back on the mat again. God is good 🙏🏼 pic.twitter.com/TmKDU8pFuD
— Helen Maroulis OLY (@helen_maroulis) October 5, 2018
The 2016 victory over Yoshida, arguably the greatest women’s freestyle wrestler ever, propelled Maroulis to Olympic stardom. In the immediate aftermath, even Maroulis herself had a hard time processing what she had done.
“I knew I was going against a really respectable opponent, and after the buzzer hit and I found out I had won, I was in shock – disbelief – and I just remember thinking, ‘Wow God, not many people win the Olympics,” she said in a feature for the Summer 2021 edition of Sports Spectrum Magazine.
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Then came the concussions, the first of which occurred in 2018 at a tournament in India. She suffered another during a practice before she had fully recovered from the initial one. It was Maroulis’ third concussion since 2015.
She got to a point where she couldn’t even think about wrestling and stepped away from the sport in 2019. Maroulis was perfectly content never wrestling again, but embraced what she believed was God’s plan for her.
“I just kind of felt like He revealed to me that if wrestling is where your pain and trauma happened and you run away from it for the rest of your life, you’re not ever going to heal from it,” she told Sports Spectrum.
Maroulis earned her spot on the Olympic team while competing on a torn MCL that wasn’t fully healed, adding to the list of obstacles she had to overcome to return to the Olympic podium. Through it all, she has remained faithful to God and worked to glorify Him in the good and the bad.
“I like sharing what God’s done in my life, and I’ll share about the good or the bad because at the end of the day, He’s with you through all of it and it’s not about winning or losing,” Maroulis said. “It’s about knowing that, no matter what, He’s there and He’s good.”
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