The U.S. had never won an Olympic gold medal in women’s freestyle wrestling. Japan’s Saori Yoshida had lost only twice in 14 years of competition and was the reigning gold medalist at 53 kg (117 pounds).
But Thursday belonged to American Helen Maroulis. With a couple of quick moves in the second half, she was suddenly up 4-1 over the nearly unbeatable Yoshida. The clocked ticked down. The horn blew.
A euphoric Maroulis won the gold.
“Anyone can win it, that’s what I told myself,” Maroulis said. “I just didn’t want to look at Goliath and get scared.”
A stunned Yoshida, head tucked in her hands on the mat, had to settle for silver.
“The opponent was stronger than me,” Yoshida said in tears after the match. “I should have attacked sooner and faster but the opponent was stronger than me.”
The win was sweet redemption for Maroulis, who didn’t qualify for the London Olympics four years ago. She went to the games instead as a training partner for the woman who beat her in the U.S. trials. It was a humbling experience. But disappointment can be powerful motivation, which she and her coach described in a recent Washington Post profile.
Maroulis, of Rockville, Md., is used to fighting for what she wants. When she started out in high school, few girls wrestled. Parents and other wrestlers taunted her. Some boys even forfeited matches and refused to wrestle, fearing they’d lose to a girl.
But she loved the sport. She has trained hard and finding success on the mat. She won silver in the 2012 World Championships against, yes, Yoshida. She knew that if she made it to Rio, she had a chance to compete against one of the most decorated athletes in the sport.
Yoshida scored first, a single point in the first half. But the second half belonged to Maroulis. A takedown put her up 2-1. Then a push out – another point. And so it went. Until victory.
Maroulis grabbed her head in disbelief. Her face transformed from shock, to joy as the reality of her accomplishment set in. She hugged her coach, she even hugged Yoshida. Someone gave her a flag. She draped it around her shoulders, teary as she stepped toward a cheering crowd. “U-S-A,” they chanted.
No more jeers for Maroulis. Just lots of respect.
“Yoshida is an incredible athlete,” Maroulis said. “The more I studied her, the more I was like, she’s not my enemy. No one here is my enemy. I think God really taught me that — that these are just women who want the same thing that you do and who are sacrificing the same things that I am.”