DC Sports Day

Maroulis beats three-time Olympic champ Yoshida, becoming the first USA women’s wrestling Olympic champion

Helen Maroulis - Nationals

Helen Maroulis celebrates with the American flag after becoming the first U.S. women’s freestyle Olympic gold medalist with a victory at 53 kg at the Rio Olympic Games. Photo by John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – It was a historic night for women’s wrestling in the United States, as Helen Maroulis (Huntington Beach, Calif./Sunkist Kids) won the gold medal at 53 kg/116.5 lbs. at the Olympic Games on Thursday afternoon in Carioca 2 Arena.

She became the first American women’s wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal, in the fourth Olympic Games featuring the sport. Not only did she smash the barrier for USA Wrestling, but to do so, she had to beat perhaps the greatest wrestler in the history of women’s wrestling, three-time Olympic champion Saori Yoshida of Japan in the finals. For Maroulis, it was the stuff of dreams.

“I cried,” said Maroulis as she watched the American flag raised and heard the American national anthem in the arena. “It represents our country and it stands for so much, with so much value behind it. Flags are raised for so many different things. This is small, well, it was big for me, but small in comparison to our country. It was a victory, and the anthem was being played, but I also thought about the fact that there are Americans in other countries at war and there are flags there. It is such an honor to be an American. It is such a blessing. When the anthem plays, how could you not cry?”

This was a battle of 2015 World champions, as Maroulis was the World gold medalist at 55 kg/121 lbs., while Yoshida won at 53 kg/116.5 lbs. Yoshida boasted an unbelievable 13 World titles along with her three Olympic gold medals, looking to join her teammate Kaori Icho as a four-time Olympic champion after Icho was the 58 kg/128 lbs. champion on Wednesday night.

Yoshida led 1-0 at the break after Maroulis was put on the shot clock and could not score. But the second period belonged to the Maryland native, who seemed to control the pace and action. Maroulis scored a takedown for a 2-1 lead in the second, then added another takedown with 59 seconds left in the match. Although Yoshida tried to get Maroulis to make a mistake, she was unable to get another score, and time ran out.

“I said over and over that Christ is in me and I am enough. That is one of the most freeing things I have ever said. I said I don’t need to be perfect. Leading up in training camp, people would ask me how I feel about practice. I had no answer. I was looking for perfection everywhere. I realized I was not going to find it. I trusted God that what I have is enough,” she said.

The crowd, which included a large contingent of Japanese fans hoping to see history, warmly received Maroulis who was very emotional on the mat, hugging her coaches and running around the raised platform with an American flag.

“I tried really hard not to dream about the future, because it is not how you get things done. I had a feeling I was going to cry. A, I am a crier. But B, it’s one of those things, where this was the hardest thing I have ever done, mentally, physically and emotionally. I am not the kind of person who, after I win, is thinking it’s all me. I step on the mat, and I think I don’t know how this is going to get done. I just want to give my all. I want to be proud of myself, knowing I did it my own way. At the end, I was like, ‘really, I did this? Oh my Gosh.’”

For Maroulis, it was her fourth-career World or Olympic medal. She was a 2015 World champion, 2012 World silver medalist and a 2014 World bronze medalist. Yoshida had beaten her by pin in their two previous meetings, in the 2012 World finals in Canada, and also in the 2011 World Championships.

“In the semifinals, I remember thinking, it is an honor to wrestle Yoshida. For someone to win three gold medals and come back and to risk that and accept that challenge, that is another four years of work and dedication and giving your life to the sport. 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. 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 said.

Maroulis had a fantastic day, winning five matches. In the morning session, she scored two technical falls, a pin and a decision. Included was a come-from behind win over Myong Suk Jong of North Korea in the quarterfinals and a pin over past World champion Sofia Mattsson of Sweden in the semifinals.

“Kudos to Helen Maroulis. To get a gold medal around her neck, she had to do one thing, and that is believe in Helen Maroulis. Having that gold medal shows that she did that. This is about empowering young people and helping them realize their potential, and Helen did that today,” said National Women’s Coach Terry Steiner.

Steiner said Maroulis took on the challenge of facing Yoshida with the right approach.

“You don’t hide from it. You realize that Yoshida is a great champion and has set the bar for everyone in the sport. You have to rise up to her, because she wasn’t coming down. It was really just putting everything together. Helen took things into her own hands. After 2012, it was a big turning point for her. When you do that, you empower yourself, believe in what you have and good things can happen,” said Steiner.

Dropping her bronze-medal match and placing fifth at 63 kg/138.75 lbs. was two-time Olympian Elena Pirozhkova (Colorado Springs, Colo./Titan Mercury WC), who was pinned by Yekaterina Larionova of Kazakhstan at 4:01 of their bronze-medal bout. Pirozhkova led 3-0 at the break, but Larionova was able to turn and pin Pirozhkova for a come-from-behind victory. Pirozhkova, a 2012 World champion, is a four-time World medalist for Team USA.

“I knew she was a thrower. I know she will give up points just trying to throw, throw, throw. When she threw me, I thought I stepped out far enough. This is really hard. I thought I was going to win,” said Pirozhkova.

Three-time World champion and five-time World medalist Adeline Gray (Colorado Springs, Colo./New York AC) finished seventh at 75 kg/165 lbs. with a 1-1 record. Gray was upset in the quarterfinals by Vasillisa Marzaliuk of Belarus, 4-1. Gray held the tiebreaker in a 1-1 match, but Marzaliuk was able to turn Gray with a front-headlock with just seconds left on the clock for the win. The USA challenged the call but it was unsuccessful. Marzaliuk was defeated by eventual gold medalist Erica Wiebe of Canada in the semifinals, which eliminated Gray from medal contention.

Maroulis won the only medal for the U.S. women wrestlers, as Haley Augello (Lockport, Ill./New York AC) competed on Wednesday and placed ninth at 48 kg/105.5 lbs.

“We all need to celebrate for Helen. This is a stepping stone for this sport in our nation. For the others, Haley Augello, Adeline Gray and Elena Pirozhkova, they need to hold their head up high and be proud of who they are and what they have become through this sport. I don’t think their days are done. It is a great movement for women’s wrestling to have that gold medal. We needed it so very much. We finally got that done,” said Steiner.

Wiebe became Canada’s second women’s wrestling Olympic champion, joining 2008 champion Carol Huyhn. She defeated Guzel Manyurova of Kazakhstan, 6-0 in a dominant finals effort. It was a third career Olympic medal for Manyurova, who has won two for Kazakhstan and one for Russia.

Japan won its fourth Olympic gold medal of the Rio Olympics in women’s freestyle when Risako Kawai of Japan stopped Maryia Mamashuk of Belarus, 6-0 in the finals at 63 kg/137.5 lbs. Japan swept the three gold medals on Wednesday, with Icho, Eri Tosaka (48 kg) and Sara Dosho (69 kg) also winning.

Wrestling competition will resume at 9 a.m. (ET) Friday morning with the start of men’s freestyle. Competing for the U.S. is three-time World champion and Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs at 74 kg and Daniel Dennis at 57 kg.

Every match from the 2016 Olympic Games can be viewed live courtesy of NBC at NBCOlympics.com. Complete brackets and match-by-match results can be found at unitedworldwrestling.org.