That day when U.S. wrestler Helen Maroulis beat an invincible legend

RIO DE JANERIO -- It was the sort of victory that resonates for years, the sight of a colossus in a sport suddenly going down, with all the attendant shock and amazement that comes with that. But even so, it wasn't the Miracle on the Mat it might seem.

American freestyle wrestler Helen Maroulis was only 18 when she was pinned by legendary Japanese wrestler Saori Yoshida in 69 seconds the first time they met. She tore a ligament in her elbow too. Just two years ago, Maroulis was among three Americans chosen to train with Yoshida and some of her Olympic countrywomen at a conference in Japan, which dominates women's freestyle wrestling the way the U.S. owns basketball, and Maroulis says, "I didn't get a single takedown of them the whole time I was there."

But Maroulis learned from it. She pushed herself even more after that. She got a new head coach, won the 2015 world title at a higher weight of 55kg, and by the time she and Yoshida walked out Thursday for their 53kg gold-medal match, all those years of chasing Yoshida and studying Yoshida on tape, all the real and imagined hours of wrestling against the great Yoshida and watching her from afar, knowing Yoshida was the woman to beat here in Rio even at the age 33, paid off. Because Maroulis had landed on something she was committed to trying now. And the fascinating thing is, it wasn't a throw or a move.

It was a thought: What is it that separated Yoshida from everyone else? And if you could unlock that, wouldn't you have a better chance of being able to beat her?

As Maroulis explained it Friday, "I'm not a great video scouter from a wrestling technician point of view. But I studied her for years and years ... And I just tried to get into her head, tried to get to see what she was thinking. From what I saw, she's just better at being patient [during a match].

"Then I was like, 'When you're used to being patient, knowing someone panics, what happens when you're patient and someone matches you in that? Then you'll be the one to panic.'

"That's the thought I went into the match with."


"It happened," Maroulis said Friday with a grin.

The insight was a stroke of genius. No one else seemed to have the brains to figure it out and the talent to make it work. It was also a bit of a risk.

Freestyle wrestling matches last only six minutes. That's it. But Maroulis had trained for this moment against Yoshida with patience in mind, and she says she'd wrestled that way in previous matches, always thinking about this potential match.

Though the weight of knowing Yoshida hadn't given a point to anyone in these Olympics could've hit Maroulis again once the match began, running like a freight train through her mind when the referee decided she wasn't being aggressive enough and put her on the shot clock -- meaning she had 30 seconds to try to score or Yoshida would be awarded a point -- Maroulis had a decision to make.

And still she told herself, "Do nothing. Be patient."

"I was just thinking I'm not going to take a shot -- I can be down 1-0 and that's OK, I'm going to show her even being down 1-0, I'm still not going to get out of my game plan, I'm not going to get out of my stance, I'm not going to react to her movement. I'm going to set the pace. Starting the second period, I think she knew that she might get put on the shot clock, and that's when she started opening up, and that's when I capitalized on that with my takedown."

It was daring. It was smart. It happened exactly as Maroulis hoped it could. She was ahead 2-1 now, and then she added two more points near the end of the match, pushing her lead over Yoshida to 4-1. Bedlam broke out when it was over and everyone realized what she had done. Maroulis was romping around the mat with an American flag flying behind her. Yoshida's legendary run was over. Perhaps a new one had begun?

By Friday, Maroulis happily admitted she hasn't slept for three days. And patience was still the word. Laughing now, she added had no idea when she might get some rest.