OLYMPICS

The Washington Times Daily - - Sports -

Iowa City, Iowa.

“Get­ting that was a huge re­lief,” Maroulis said. “It’s a good ad­van­tage to have.”

But ac­quir­ing fa­vored-wrestler sta­tus didn’t come eas­ily. Just in the past four years, Maroulis has lived in four dif­fer­ent cities: fin­ish­ing her ju­nior year at Ma­gruder, where she placed in the Mary­land state cham­pi­onship meet at 112 pounds; mov­ing to Marquette, Mich., for an Olympic train­ing pro­gram for high school stu­dents; start­ing col­lege at Mis­souri Bap­tist in St. Louis; trans­fer­ring to Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity near Van­cou­ver, Bri­tish Columbia, for her sec­ond year of col­lege; and last fall, mov­ing into the Olympic Train­ing Cen­ter in Colorado Springs, Colo., for her Lon­don push.

But be­fore that, she was just one of Kevin Phelps’ wrestlers, al­beit his great­est suc­cess story.

“She’s the stand­out, and she’s in pretty good com­pany,” the for­mer Ma­gruder wrestling coach said. “I had team­mates in col­lege that ended up be­ing Al­lAmer­i­cans. I’ve coached seven or eight state champs. She just makes you re­al­ize how good she is when you stack her up against ev­ery­one else.”

Phelps, 39, is not cur­rently coach­ing. But when he re­turns to the mat, he’ll prob­a­bly use some of his Helen Maroulis sto­ries to mo­ti­vate his wrestlers.

“We kind of knew she was com­ing,” Phelps said of Maroulis’ suc­cess as a club wrestler dur­ing her mid­dle school years. “It wasn’t a ques­tion of whether she was go­ing to be on the team or if she was go­ing to start. It was, ‘How well is she go­ing to fare against the top-tier kids?’ ”

Some coaches saw her as a nov­elty and didn’t know what to ex­pect when she went up against boys. “But she just de­stroyed them,” Phelps said. Maroulis ex­ceeded 30 wins in her first year and fin­ished her Ma­gruder ca­reer with 99 vic­to­ries. Her most mem­o­rable ac­com­plish­ment came at the Hub Cup, a tour­na­ment in North Hager­stown, Md., where she was voted the most out­stand­ing wrestler with­out win­ning her weight class.

“She wres­tled this guy who was the re­turn­ing out­stand­ing wrestler at the tour­na­ment,” Phelps said. “He was a se­nior go­ing up against a fresh­man girl. There were three matches go­ing on at the same time, but as those matches ended, her match ended up go­ing into over­time. So ev­ery­one’s watch­ing Helen’s match. And she beat this mon­ster. She was this lit­tle girl go­ing against this lit­tle man, and the stands are go­ing crazy.”

Maroulis lost in the semi­fi­nals and had to face her ad­ver­sary for third place. And the match went into over­time, again.

“She ends up tak­ing him down and pin­ning him, and the place erupts,” Phelps said. “They ended up giv­ing her the out­stand­ing wrestler, which is pretty un­com­mon for a third-place fin­ish.”

Terry Steiner, the Team USA women’s wrestling coach, said he and his col­leagues started hear­ing about Maroulis be­fore they saw her in per­son.

“From cadet na­tion­als to ju­nior na­tion­als, she was one of those peo­ple who started per­form­ing,” Steiner said. “If they start per­form­ing, we start pay­ing at­ten­tion. Once they’re in the top three of our ju­nior pool, we try to wrap our arms around them.”

While Maroulis put her stamp on the Mary­land high school scene with two dra­matic over­time wins as a fresh­man, it was a loss that cat­a­pulted her to her cur­rent level.

“I think los­ing last year [July 2011] in the fi­nals of the ju­nior world cham­pi­onships, a match she fully ex­pected to win, put her in a dif­fer­ent place in a good way,” Steiner said about a loss to Kanako Mu­rata of Ja­pan. “She just had a flat match in the fi­nals, there’s no other way around it. If they wres­tled 10 times, Helen would win nine. So it stung, and that’s driv­ing her quite a bit. She came home with a real sense of ur­gency, and she hasn’t let up.”

Since then, Maroulis fin­ished fifth in the se­nior world cham­pi­onship and ei­ther first or sec­ond in four other events, in­clud­ing a vic­tory in the Pan Amer­i­can Cham­pi­onship on Feb. 25.

Ahead of the April tri­als, Maroulis will be with the na­tional team on a train­ing trip to China or back in Colorado Springs plug­ging away. Both coach and athlete say the Olympics we see on TV — with its lau­rel wreaths and gold medals — couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent than the bru­tal path to get there. We don’t see the repet­i­tive ses­sions of prac­tice, weightl­lift­ing, car­dio­vas­cu­lar train­ing, vis­its to phys­i­cal ther­a­pists and chi­ro­prac­tors.

“It’s pretty much eat, wres­tle, sleep,” Maroulis said. “I don’t have a car, so I don’t get off cam­pus much. But we go to yoga a lot on Sun­days.”

The grind can be men­tally drain­ing, and Maroulis said she’s look­ing for­ward to some up­com­ing ses­sions with a sports psy­chol­o­gist.

“Since the end of 2010, the past year-and-a-half, I’ve had to com­mit to do all the lit­tle things that mat­ter. Ev­ery­thing I could think of: chang­ing my diet, get­ting more sleep,” Maroulis said, tick­ing off a list. “And it’s worked for me. And ev­ery sport at this level is re­ally men­tal.

“I can over­think and get over­whelmed. You sac­ri­fice ev­ery­thing to make this team. The closer it comes up, I’m get­ting ex­cited and ner­vous at the same time.”

Paula usu­ally fol­lows the matches via we­b­cast, but since it’s a tri­als event and owned by NBC, it will not be streamed live. NBC Sports Net­work (for­merly Ver­sus) will air the fi­nals early the fol­low­ing week, so Mom will have to stay up­dated by friends at the event. Or per­haps get the re­sults from Helen.

“You’re mak­ing me ner­vous just think­ing about it,” she said. “But if she makes it, I will cry like a baby.”

Steiner said the tri­als are de­signed to send the most de­serv­ing wrestler to Lon­don, and Maroulis has earned that honor based on her re­cent suc­cess. But even if she’s up­set, there is a bright fu­ture.

“She’s a ris­ing star — this is just be­gin­ning for Helen. She hasn’t made the Olympic team, yet. But I’m pretty sure she’ll have more op­por­tu­ni­ties; she’s very young. She has at least one more, if not two or three more cy­cles,” Steiner said. “Who knows at what point it be­comes not im­por­tant for her? But as long as she stays fo­cused, she’s go­ing to have op­por­tu­ni­ties to win a lot of cham­pi­onships.”

BRIAN OLLER/SPE­CIAL TO THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Helen Maroulis (right), from Rockville chats with team­mates be­fore the start of a work­out Thurs­day at the Olympic Train­ing Cen­ter in Colorado Springs, Colo. By win­ning the na­tional cham­pi­onship in De­cem­ber, Maroulis earned a bye into the best-of-three fi­nals at the U.S. Olympic Tri­als on April 21.

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