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Rio champ Maroulis dominant again after overcoming self-doubts

Helen Maroulis celebrates after defeating Marwa Amri in the women's 58kg category during the final of the Wrestling World Cup in Paris in August 2017. AP Photo/Francois Mori

When you consider her pedigree, it is remarkable just how much a bundle of nerves Helen Maroulis is before a bout. Ahead of her opening match in the Pro Wrestling league against Marwa Amri, Maroulis played Christian pop music on loop. Her coach Valentin Kalika was by her side for close to an hour psyching her up. When she stepped on the mat, she looked heavenwards and mouthed a prayer. Once the whistle blew though, it was as if Maroulis was in her element. Shortly after the break, Amri, an Olympic bronze medallist and a silver medallist at the World Championships, was pinned.

That dominance is something spectators have come to expect from the 26-year-old American. At the World Championships in August, Maroulis won gold in the 58kg category beating every one of her opponents by technical fall. That she didn't concede a single point in the entire tournament (she went 53-0) was made all the more remarkable by the fact that she wrestled with a torn right thumb ligament -- essentially one handed.

You would think Maroulis considers herself pretty much invincible at this point but she doesn't. "Different levels, different devils," she says.

The biggest demon of them all was in the crisis of self-belief Maroulis suffered after what was possibly the greatest moment of her career -- winning gold at the Rio Olympics by beating the legendary three-time champion Saori Yoshida in the final.

"I thought, 'Oh, I've conquered this, I can conquer anything.' And it didn't go that way. After the Olympics, I lost all my confidence."

"I thought, 'Oh, I've conquered this, I can conquer anything.' And it didn't go that way. After the Olympics, I lost all my confidence," she says. It wasn't like that at first. Maroulis was tweeted at by Michele Obama, featured in Vogue magazine and feted around the country as the golden girl of American wrestling.

Yet it troubled her, Maroulis says when asked how she did it. Honestly, she wasn't sure. "I spent most of my life looking at Olympic champions -- men -- and thinking that I had to be like them if I had to win," she says. "But I could never be like them. They were confident and I was not. I would cry and every time I would cry, I would think I was going to lose because champions don't cry. I've worked with sports psychologists and I was told I was doing things technically wrong. I was told I would overthink, stress too much, that I was too emotional and weak-minded." That's when the doubts started creeping in. "I began wondering, 'Did I do it right? Can I do it again or was I just lucky,'" she says. Maroulis had always known she wanted to wrestle until the 2020 Olympics, but in the weeks after her win at Rio the scale of the challenge overwhelmed her. "When I processed the amount of work it had taken, I began to cry," she says.

It was then that Maroulis stepped away from the sport she loved ever since she first stepped on a mat as a seven-year-old. "Obviously it is amazing to be known as the Olympic champion but I felt that if I stayed in wrestling I would have to defend that," she says. "And I didn't want to do that. I wanted to wrestle because I loved it, not because I was the only thing I was good at it and I had to."

And so she took a break. She moved to Norway for three months and went back to school. She attempted cooking and knitting (she tried to complete a sweater but managed a scarf). She made an effort to play the guitar (but failed miserably and now plans to blame it on her thumb injury).

She decided to give mixed martial arts a tryout despite being put off initially by its brutality and trash-talking. Maroulis even flew to Ireland to train with two-time UFC champion Connor McGregor. "We wrestled in the cage," she says. "Of course, I was wrestling in a low wrestling stance and that isn't good for a fighter, and so I adjusted to a higher stance and he adjusted and I adjusted and that was fun, learning about each other's sports."

While her coaches understood her need for an extended break, the trade-offs were also made clear. Coach Kalika told Maroulis if she stepped away from the sport, it would take another two years of training to pick up where she left off. "That meant I would not be ready for the World Championships and I was okay with that," she says.

Yet after seven months, when Kalika asked her whether she would be interested in participating in a small competition in Ukraine, Maroulis -- having not trained since the Olympics and weighing two divisions above what she did in Rio -- got on to the first flight from Norway to make it.

"I had not trained for it at all and I got pinned in my second match," she says. "It was so humbling because I hadn't lost in two years in 67 matches, before losing to some girl from Ukraine." It was there though that the passion for wrestling reignited for Maroulis and not just because she lost. "I just really missed competing," she says. "It's like if you eat chocolate every day, you get sick of it and don't eat it for six months. Then one day you taste it and it is amazing. So you eat it again but probably don't go as crazy about it as before."

Indeed, Maroulis isn't as obsessive about wrestling as she once was. Shortly before the World Championships, she took up salsa dancing. It gave Maroulis a new perspective on her sport. "Each time I am dancing, I am starting from the bottom," she says. "And when I am doing terribly, I get upset with myself and think, 'Oh god, I'm so bad.' Then I remember I was really bad at wrestling at one point too. It took many, many years to get good. And that is humbling. Now I appreciate wrestling more."

"I want boys and girls to see that I might be an Olympic champion but I don't have my life together. I don't have the answers. Not in my sport and not outside my sport. And that's okay."

Salsa has helped her in other ways too. "Dance is about reading your partner," she says. "If they step back, I have to step forward. Wrestling is the same. If I am pushing forward, I know you are going to push back. The difference is that in wrestling it is about reading the body and attacking, and dancing is about working with your partner."

Competing with a far more relaxed state of mind, Maroulis might have defied expectations and blitzed the field on her way to a World Championship gold, but if her experiences in the past year have taught her anything it is that there a world outside wrestling.

The challenges she faces on the mat are simply ways to prepare for what really matters in life. "It's about, 'Do I want to be a good wife one day, do I want to be a good mother one day?'" she says. "It could be about teaching me about patience. When I want to quit, I persist because you can't quit in life. And you can't quit on your kids and you can't quit in your marriage."

And so she has come to terms with her confusion and the lack of self-belief that dogged her a year-and-a-half ago and sometimes follows her even today. And it's that understanding that she really wants people to know in response to the question, 'How do you do it?' "I want boys and girls to see that I might be an Olympic champion but I don't have my life together," she says. "I don't have the answers. Not in my sport and not outside my sport. And that's okay. I want kids to figure out what works for them."