Wrestling was never really my cup of tea. But when word got out on South Halsted Street in Chicago’s Greektown – my neighborhood at the time – that a Greek American had just become the first US Olympic champion in women’s wrestling, things changed and I had to see for myself.
Courtesy of YouTube, I watched Helen Maroulis wrestle her way to an Olympic gold, defeating Japan’s three-time Olympic champion, “Yoshida the Invincible.” Her single-minded intensity left me awed and mesmerized. It was a magnificent sight of mind and body at work. With her toned body and classical face, it was as if a Greek statue had come alive, right down to her curls and braided hairstyle. It was a moment that validated what I have believed and preached for years, that immigrants and their descendants make American history.
In Helen’s face and curly hair, I saw her grandmother and namesake, Eleni Maroulis, a stoic Greek immigrant who came to the US from the small Ionian island of Kalamos in the late 1960s with her children, including Helen’s father, 12-year-old Yiannis. Both our families immigrated to the US after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 did away with the quota system, which till then limited the number of Southern Europeans coming into the country in favor of those from Northern Europe.
Our paths crossed in the suburbs of Washington, DC, Maryland side, in a complex of garden apartments that brought together several Greek families. While we have all long moved on since then and rarely see each other, the camaraderie of those early days lingers on. I knew Yiannis had done well for himself, and that he and his wife Paula had three children. I also knew his daughter was a successful wrestler, but had no idea just how successful she was.
Preparing for this article, I read all I could about Helen. It’s not hard. She’s been making history and headlines ever since she was a little girl. What emerged was the portrait of a trailblazer, a pioneer, a dedicated and responsible athlete, appreciative and humble, a frequent church-goer, who finds strength and solace in her faith, with a clear vision of what she wants. Even before high school, she ranked among the best wrestlers in the country.
For the Rio Olympics, Helen trained harder than ever. Having lost to Yoshida twice before, she worked with a special coach to increase her upper body strength. She also watched videos of Yoshida wrestling for hours, Google-translating all her interviews to decode her style and technique.
Yet Helen’s love of wrestling was not motivated by Olympic aspirations. While the gold validated her struggles, her journey began long before wrestling was even an Olympic sport. Stepping onto the mat, pink socks and all, at the age of 7, to act as her younger brother’s sparring partner, this painfully shy little girl took to wrestling like a fish to water. So focused on her own movement and technique, the outside world all but vanished. This was a first for her, as her shyness had up until then made it impossible for her to follow through with other activities she had tried, including swimming, diving and ballet.
Ironically, the one sport she wanted to pursue came with many obstacles. She had to fight for the right to wrestle. And, as one of only two girl wrestlers in Maryland, where she was born in 1991, and only a few nationwide, she had to wrestle boys all through high school. Boys on the other hand would rather quit than lose to her, and in the 8th grade, they forfeited 10 of her games.
Gender bias, institutional barriers, mistreatment bordering on abuse by boy wrestlers, and surprisingly by coaches who at times even encouraged their wrestlers to “break her,” along with insults hurled at her by parents whose sons she beat, none of it fazed her. At 16, Helen moved a thousand miles from home to Marquette, Michigan, to train at the US Olympic Education Center, and has been living out of a suitcase since. She went on to study at Missouri Baptist University in St Louis, where she joined the women’s wrestling team, transferring to Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, where she studied marketing and competed in wrestling, earning four women’s college national championship titles.
To do the story justice, I reached out to Helen’s father. Who could better tell me about the challenges of raising a girl so committed to a male-dominated sport? By a twist of fate, Helen was home, recuperating from a shoulder injury she sustained on October 24, 2018, as she vied for her fourth World Championship. Her first loss in four years, it was the culmination of a year-long battle with a debilitating concussion she suffered in January 2018 in New Delhi, India. Impacting her brain’s emotional control center, the injury wreaked havoc with both her physical health and her emotions, and included personality changes, and scary thoughts. With her symptoms misdiagnosed, her recovery was long and nerve-wracking. Taking matters into her own hands, she learned the hard way how little those in the field, especially coaches, know about head injuries, and how important it is that they educate themselves.
Seeing Helen a few days later at her parents’ beautiful home, she was far from what I envisioned a wrestling champion to be. Petite, pretty, graceful and gracious, there were still traces of shyness in her grown-up smile. After some wistful reminiscing about our early “apartment” days, I asked Yiannis and Paula what it’s been like raising a champion. Proud, yet measured, they both spoke of hard work and sacrifice. Clearly, one does not get to two world championships and an Olympic gold overnight. One look at the walls in their den, and you realize it takes years of hard work and thousands of steps, one step at a time. Meticulously arranged and hung on the walls by Yiannis himself, the hundreds of medals, ribbons and belts, each representing a single step in a long journey, give you a sense of the immensity of the task for everyone involved.
Paula has spent a good part of her life on the road, driving her daughter to her competitions, often a thousand miles at a time. Yiannis cringed at the memory of his 16-year-old daughter leaving home to train in Michigan. Disciplined and regimented, Helen’s life has been anything but carefree. She still has no social life, but doesn’t miss it. Her life is not only about wrestling, however. After our meeting, she set off to a dance class. In addition to spending time with family, she loves talking with people and hearing their stories. She loves spending time at Barnes & Noble where she can sit for hours and read, especially about psychology. Having struggled with anxiety herself, this is her way of better understanding herself, her competitors and teammates. She especially loves visiting Kalamos, her father’s birthplace, where she’s been going since she was a toddler. The people of Kalamos love her back, and even organized a parade in her honor.
This family’s affinity with the sport began with Yiannis, who took up wrestling at 16 as a way to deal with bullies. While it was too late for him to make a career of it, he credits the sport with giving him confidence and teaching him discipline, resilience and other skills that have served him well, even in his business. Wanting these life lessons for his sons, he signed them up for wrestling. Little did he know it would be his daughter that would follow in his footsteps. And, lest you think he has given up competing, Yiannis is now a member of the US Sporting Clays Team, the national team for sporting clay shooting, and will compete this August at the World Sporting Clay Championships.
Helen shares her father’s sentiments on the benefits of wrestling. She says it’s made her a better person, teaching her perseverance, mental toughness, goal-setting, personal responsibility and self-control. Most of all, it’s made her more confident and self-reliant. And, as she says, she did not find wrestling. Rather, wrestling found her. When she first stepped onto the mat to help her brother, she worked just as hard, if not harder, than the boys. At the end of it, only the boys could compete. Seeing the unfairness in it, she told her parents she wanted to take up wrestling. Her father agreed, provided she won her first match. He now confesses he never thought she’d win. Helen won her first match, the only one all year. But a promise is a promise.
A few years later, her parents asked her to quit. As a male-dominated sport, wrestling offered no opportunities for the future. But when the International Olympic Committee approved Greece’s proposal to make women’s wrestling an Olympic sport, Helen’s wrestling future suddenly looked bright. As young as she was, she felt validated and no longer an outsider. No coach, teammate or parent could ever again question her right to wrestle.
By all accounts, Helen has done wonders for women’s wrestling in the US, not only through institutional changes, but also by inspiring girls to pursue the sport, making high school girls wrestling one the fastest-growing sports in the country. She is reluctant to take credit, however. It’s taken a village, she says, to get where I am today. In addition to her parents, she credits coaches along the way who stood up for her right to wrestle. She credits everyone on her support team who makes sure she is prepared to be the best she can be.
She has been completely dominant in women’s wrestling since 2015, winning two world titles and an Olympic gold in three different weight classes, going 78-1 overall during the past three years. No other American wrestler has gone unscored upon at an Olympics or Worlds in the last 30 years. Helen did it in 2015 and 2017.
Helen’s future in wrestling, like her journey to date, is a step-by-step plan. She doesn’t think in terms of breaking records. She plans to compete through 2020 and participate in the 2020 Olympics. She will then re-evaluate. It’s always about the next step. While she is well aware that she can’t compete forever, she knows that wrestling will always be in her life, whether through coaching or working to inspire young people, as she already does. Aware of her responsibilities as a role model, she is always mindful to act responsibly and pass on the right messages to younger athletes. Again, quietly and without much ado or publicity, she makes special appearances and works with children hoping to empower and inspire them to follow their dreams, whether in wrestling or not.
Regardless of her future plans or achievements, however, Helen will always be the girl who cleared the path for thousands of girls to pursue their wrestling dreams. She will always be America’s first female Olympic gold champion, the descendant of immigrants who made American history.
Connie Mourtoupalas is an exhibitions curator and former president of the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago.