Originally Published: on Apr. 4, 2021 | The Washington Post | By Les Carpenter
Almost five years after her surprise gold medal at the 2016 Olympics, Helen Maroulis won a spot in her second straight Games on Saturday night with a victory at the U.S. Olympic wrestling team trials.
Maroulis, a 57-kilogram freestyle wrestler from Rockville, beat Jenna Burkert, 2-1, at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, pinning Burkert seconds into the third round. She was one of two gold medalists from the Rio de Janeiro Games to make the U.S. team Saturday. Kyle Snyder, from Woodbine, Md., also clinched a trip to Tokyo by overpowering Kollin Moore, 2-0, at 97 kilograms.
In perhaps the biggest shock of the night, Jordan Burroughs, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist at 74 kg, failed to go to his third straight Olympics, losing, 2-0, to longtime rival Kyle Dake, a man he had repeatedly beaten in previous competitions.
Maroulis had controlled the 57-kg weight class in the year before and after her gold medal in Rio, winning world championships in 2015 and 2017 without giving up a point. But in early 2018 she was diagnosed with a concussion after being bumped in the head during a professional match in India. The effects lingered for months, leaving her uncertain she wanted to wrestle again after losing her first match at the 2018 world championships.
After resting at home in Rockville for much of 2019, she won the Pan American qualifier in Ottawa in March 2020, right before the coronavirus pandemic prompted the cancellation of last spring’s Olympic trials. Last month, in a pre-trials video conference, she said she has fully recovered, adding, “My head is good, like 100 percent.”
“I think everything I went through has made me stronger and better prepared for this,” she added. “I think any kind of health scare and just being bedridden and not knowing if I was going to compete again really freed me up to appreciate every little moment and to not take anything for granted and just really going through the fire and coming out of it and not just coming out of it alive but thriving.”
Burkert, who was wrestling a week after her mother’s death, pushed Maroulis to the third round. She burst into tears as Maroulis finished her off.
“I was like, I have to go for this,” Maroulis said of her thought process before the third round. “This is what I’ve fought for.”
Late Saturday night, Maroulis revealed that she wrestled in the trials with a torn medial collateral ligament she suffered last month, saying she pleaded with doctors who told her she would need to be in a brace for six weeks.
“When it popped, I screamed,” she said. “Then I said, ‘Okay I’m going to win the trials.’ I really, deeply believe I was supposed to make the team.”
Snyder, 25, had not lost a match in his previous four tournaments leading up to Saturday’s final. At 20 years old in 2016, he was the youngest American to win an Olympic gold in wrestling. After failing to win gold at the past two world championships, he switched his training from Columbus, Ohio, to State College, Pa., a change that seems to have worked well for him.
He overwhelmed Moore on Saturday, repeatedly forcing his opponent off the mat, winning the first round 10-0 and the second 5-1.
“I think what makes Kyle Snyder great is that he makes grown men ask the question and question themselves: ‘Do I want to do this? Am I willing to do what I have to do?’ ” said Olympic bronze medalist J’den Cox, who was favored to face Snyder in the trials final until Cox failed to make weight Friday morning. “You question everything you’ve ever done in your career. You question every workout: ‘Did you do enough? Are you ready for this?’ Everything like that.”
The most anticipated matchup Saturday was Burroughs vs. Dake, a world champion in 2018 and 2019 at 79 kg, which is not an Olympic weight. Several times in recent years, Dake had dropped to 74 kg to wrestle Burroughs in epic battles that Burroughs almost always won. Coming into Saturday, Burroughs was 7-1 against Dake.
But Dake was the aggressor this time, fighting off most of Burroughs’s attempts to score points. He won the first round 3-0 and took another 3-0 lead in the second round before holding on as Burroughs made a frantic late run. At the end, Burroughs was left sitting on his knees, a shocked look on his face.
“A run is over for me,” Burroughs said after the match, adding that the chaos of the last year had left him without “a direction.”
“It’s going to be hard,” he said of missing the Olympics. “It’s going to be hard for a long time.”