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Toughness spans both genders

This is an excerpt from Wrestling Tough-2nd Edition by Mike Chapman.

Through the years, it has become obvious that toughness is not a quality exclusive to males, and there is no better example than Helen Maroulis.


One of the biggest developments in wrestling over the past 15 years is the increase in the number of females taking to the mats. Though women have been wrestling in small numbers around the globe for centuries, it wasn't until the early 1990s that they really began to make progress in the United States, with Tricia Saunders taking the lead in dramatic fashion.


Born Patricia McNaughton in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she grew up in a family heavily involved in wrestling and tagged along with her brothers to practices. At age nine, she began competing against boys and enjoyed tremendous success, showing that girls can be tough too. Entering her teen years, Tricia focused on competition with girls only, and embarked upon a career that culminated in her being inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and the FILA International Wrestling Hall of Fame.


During her senior-level career, Saunders won 11 national titles and never lost to an American. At the world championships, she captured four gold medals and one silver medal. Her husband, Townsend Saunders, won a silver medal in the 1996 Olympics, but Tricia competed before women's wrestling was included in the Olympic Games. That didn't happen until 2004.


With Tricia Saunders standing as a beacon to any woman interested in competing in wrestling, women entered the sport in increasing numbers throughout the 2000s. By 2017, the United States had won 15 gold medals at the world championships, including three by Adeline Gray, to rank fourth on the list of total gold medals by any nation.


In 2016, Helen Maroulis became the first American woman to strike gold in the Olympic Games. And she did it in stunning fashion: defeating Japan's Saori Yoshida, who is the most decorated female wrestler of all time, with 13 world titles and three Olympic gold medals to her credit.


In 2017, Maroulis claimed the world title at 128 pounds, dominating the field by huge margins. It was her third straight world/Olympic gold medal, all in different weight classes. She was a 2015 world champion at 121 pounds and won the 2016 Olympic title at 116.5 pounds. In late 2017, she was a finalist for the Female Olympic Athlete of the Year award, showing how far women's wrestling has come in a short amount of time.


The route Maroulis took to her historic Olympic victory was very difficult. She dedicated herself to a stunning physical regimen and then relied on two of her finest qualities: mental toughness and her Christian faith. In a column for the September 14, 2016, issue of W.I.N. Magazine, publisher Bryan Van Kley described her journey.


“I've come to realize this wasn't really an upset,” wrote Van Kley. “The Maroulis camp knew this was coming and had been working toward it for the better part of three years. But like any epic sports accomplishment, Helen still had to execute.”


Much of the credit for her success goes to Valentin Kalika, her personal trainer and coach. Maroulis moved from Michigan to California to train with the former Soviet Union national champion, who had devised a plan to beat Yoshida. The plan involved a commitment that would push Maroulis to the absolute limit of her stamina, both mentally and physically.


“Kalika said they did ‘crazy' drills and training situations that ‘no one else in the world would have been willing to do' to prepare Helen for success and the Yoshida match in particular,” continued Van Kley in the September 14, 2016, issue of W.I.N. “She had to endure endless footwork drills in the sands of a beach, working to the point of exhaustion. She worked like few others have ever worked in pursuit of an athletic goal.”


And it took its toll on her.


“Up until a few days before completion, she was a mess,” Kevin Black, who served as her spiritual mentor, said of her emotional state of mind. “But she stayed committed, and we had a group of people praying for her. She believed God would protect her heart and mind. He said he would, and he did!” Black said, referring to a verse from the Bible in Philippians 4:6-7.


After her monumental victory, Maroulis told the media how important her faith was to her performance, putting the emphasis on a point of mental preparation that Ben and John Peterson had tapped into during their Olympic triumphs in 1972 and 1976. “All I said over and over again is, ‘Christ is in me, and I am enough.' That was one of the most freeing things I ever said. I don't need to be perfect.”


She used that calming thought process to do away with any fear she may have felt previously. As she said in the September 14, 2016, issue of W.I.N. in her interview with Brian Van Kley, “I just didn't want to look at Goliath and get scared. I don't pray for victory. I prayed to free myself from myself because I can get in my own head. I don't want to lose because I was afraid. I just said, ‘God, I want to be free from fear.'


“I kind of forgot that I was wrestling for a gold medal. I dreamed about this match so much that I was just wrestling her.”


In an article in Sports Illustrated, in November, 2016, Maroulis offered even more insight into her odyssey. She said that as a young girl she was afraid of almost everything in life, and it was only after discovering wrestling at age seven that she began to find some degree of inner peace and security. Her parents were both against her wrestling, but she persisted, and they eventually grew to embrace her efforts.


An amazing result of her Olympic triumph came when John Harbaugh, one of the top coaches in the NFL, invited her to speak to his Baltimore Ravens football team before a game. Harbaugh told his players: “I met Helen Maroulis, the gal from Maryland who we saw beat a legendary Japanese champion in wrestling. And when you beat a legend, you become a legend.”


Maroulis talked to the Ravens that day and left them with this final thought: “You don't have to be the best. You just have to have enough. And on that day, I was enough” (Maroulis, 2016). And tough enough, one might add!


Sally Roberts is another example of the mental toughness that can be channeled into wrestling. A four-time national champion and two-time world bronze medalist, Roberts has created an organization called “Wrestle Like a Girl.” Based in Colorado Springs, it is a not-for-profit company with the mission of promoting the educational value of the sport for girls of all ages and for young women who may have been at risk. She speaks candidly about how she used her toughness to build a new future, including a business to help other women wrestlers.


“I came from a really challenging background,” said Roberts. “Through my career and journey in wrestling, I started to come into my own and became a beneficial member to society rather than just being the delinquent child who was getting ready to be sent to juvenile detention.”


Helen Maroulis

Helen Maroulis (top) has Hanbit Kim of Korea in serious trouble during this key match in the 2017 world championships. Maroulis won the match and claimed her third straight world-level title.


In a column written by Sandy Stevens for W.I.N. Magazine, Roberts explained that she had tried other sports before wrestling, but she had been cut from those programs. “Some people find wrestling, and for some people, wrestling finds them. I fell in love with a sport that accepted me as I was, a gritty girl who needed direction, support, and inclusion in a positive manner.”


Her goal now is to show at-risk girls how wrestling can make a positive difference in their lives. She and her group are involved with setting up camps and clinics across the nation and in helping start programs in high schools and colleges for girls. Through wrestling, she was able to change grittiness into toughness and become a winner on and off the mat.


By the end of 2017, there were an estimated 15,000 girls wrestling in high schools across the nation, showing an increase for 27 straight years. In addition, there were 44 college wrestling programs in the Women's Collegiate Wrestling Association at the start of 2018.


USA Wrestling, the sport's national governing body, had 13,339 registered female wrestlers in 2017, a figure that has grown for nine consecutive years. The same is true for the nation's other major wrestling organization. The AAU was formed in 1888 and has been offering programs for all sizes and ages for over a century, and now it offers them for both genders. In 2000, it reported 701 female youth wrestlers, and by 2017, that number had risen to 1,921.


Wrestling has greatly strengthened its base by welcoming women to the sport, and the women have responded with excitement, passion, commitment—and toughness!