The measure of greatness can often be determined by how many times someone has been pushed to the edge of giving up, but always chose not to do so. This is certainly true for most elite athletes—especially ones like Helen Maroulis whose primary goal in life is to compete in the Olympics.
Maroulis could have easily quit on numerous occasions throughout her career but instead relied on an uncommon intestinal fortitude and faith in her calling.
In this CSJ Conversation, Maroulis talks about her attraction to wrestling, how she overcame the temptation to walk away from the sport, and how her historic gold medal victory at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games wasn’t as important as the decision she made before ever stepping into the ring:
Bonham: Why were you initially drawn to wrestling?
Maroulis: When I started playing sports, I was asked to quit pretty much every sport I ever joined. I was shy. Or I’d just stand around and watch. I’m still trying to figure out why I started wrestling, but it one of those things where no one expected me to be a wrestler so there were no expectations. I don’t know why I loved it so much but I do know that I have God given ability and talents.
Bonham: Why didn’t you give up when you did so poorly that first year?
Maroulis: I didn’t start out as some super tough girl or athlete who refused to quit. There weren’t any expectations for me to do well. After my first year, my parents came to me and told me that women’s wrestling wasn’t an Olympic sport so there wasn’t really a future there and they didn’t like the idea of me wrestling boys in high school. They wanted me to quit before I got attached to the sport. But later that summer, they announced that women’s wrestling was going to be an Olympic sport and my parents told me I could continue if I wanted to. So from a very young age, I had a desire to go to the Olympics. If that hadn’t been a possibility, I never would have been able to wrestle. As I got older, there were dances and social events that came along but I also had training so I couldn’t go to those things. My mom said, ‘I never wanted to force you to wrestle, so I was just waiting for the one day where you didn’t want to go to practice and I’d know you were done. But you never said that so I knew you were serious and as long as you were serious I was going to do whatever it takes.’ And I said, “That’s funny, because I always thought you would be so mad at me if I said no. So that’s why I always said yes even though I wanted to go to some of these other events.’ I don’t think I can take that much credit.
Bonham: Were you trying to prove something to yourself or others?
Maroulis: Early on, the coaches were pretty mean to me. They’d put me with the toughest boys to try to make me quit. I would get the crap beat out of me. He never taught me any moves. He never paid any attention to me. In some ways, ignorance is bliss. I thought it was just normal and I just needed to get better. Over time, I just realized that I was always going to have to prove myself. Even to this day, being a female Olympic champion, when I go into a high school room, I know I have to earn respect. It’s not just given. It just depends on what the coaches taught them about women’s wrestling or what they been exposed to. But for the most part, I have to earn that respect. So I just have to work a little harder. But eventually people start to understand that technique has no gender. If you wrestle against me, I may not have the same strength as a guy or the same body composition, but you will know that I’m just as good a technical wrestler as anyone.
Bonham: Tell me about your faith journey.
Maroulis: I was raised Greek Orthodox by my family. My father’s Greek, so that’s a big deal, but my only thoughts about church was that you had to dress up and I didn’t like that. When I got to high school, I decided I was going to be an atheist. In 2010, I went to go work with Kevin Black. He offered to let me stay with his family but I would have to go to church with them. I figured I’d go and just fall asleep and get some good rest. I just remember that first weekend I went, the service as about love and I’d never heard anything like that before. It felt good. But I didn’t want to tell anyone or say anything. I felt like I had identified myself as independent and capable. I didn’t want people to think I wasn’t enough without God. I filled out a card saying I wanted to know more about Jesus. I thought they were supposed to be confidential but the pastor told Kevin. The day before the 2008 World Team trials, Kevin approached me and asked me if I wanted to say a prayer to accept Christ. I said, ‘sure.’ That was awesome and that’s when I got involved in Bible studies. In 2012, I started to realize I had been using God as my good luck charm and wasn’t in a relationship with Jesus as my Lord and Savior. That’s when I decided I was going to do it His way this time.
Bonham: How did that impact the way you approached wrestling?
Maroulis: Wrestling was my religion. I didn’t really start believing in God until I was 17 or 18. It was a process of realizing that wrestling wasn’t everything.
Bonham: How did your motivation shift after you fully committed your heart to Christ?
Maroulis: I’ve never prayed for a victory. In 2012, I wanted people to pray for me to do my best, but that was because I already knew that wrestling was an idol and even that prayer wasn’t coming from the right place. I wrote a note the day before the 2012 trials and said ‘I know You’ve prepared me for this and if you let me win I’m not gonna drink and I’m not gonna curse. I’m gonna be such a great representative for You.’ So when I lost, I was angry at God. I thought I was David. I thought I was Moses. I thought I was one of the characters from the Bible. But instead I felt like one of the anonymous 5,000 who got fed by Jesus. I was just a pawn on a chess board. I wasn’t one of God’s special people. I was so angry and so mad. Then I got to the point where I didn’t care about wrestling anymore. I was tired of getting my heart hurt and decided to retire. But then I decided to come back for the 2012 World Championships. Still, I had a lot of anxiety going into that tournament. I remember crying in the bathroom before the first match and telling God “I tried not to care, but I still care. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t ride the highs and lows of this sport. I’m not gonna make it.” So I decided to do it God’s way. My motto for that tournament was ‘Fear none but God.’ I have a lot of anxiety and emotions and instead of trying to push it down, I’ve just had to realize that I am fearfully and wonderfully made even when I don’t feel like it. ‘God, you made me. So you’ve got to tell me how I’m supposed to work.’ I spent the next four years with the only objective of doing it His way. But it wasn’t about getting a win. I just wanted to be able to move on with my life and I didn’t want to have any regrets. I just wanted peace.
Bonham: How did God change you during that time?
Maroulis: A lot of things that God changed had nothing to do with wrestling—my thought life, my social life, my priorities, the music I listened to.
Bonham: What were you feeling when you went into the 2016 gold medal match?
Maroulis: I didn’t think I was going to make weight at the Olympics. Three weeks out from the Olympics, I’ve never wanted to quit the sport because I thought it was too hard, but three week out from the Olympics I was like, “God, I’m done. You picked the wrong person. I’m not the right person for this. I can’t do this. I’m not good enough.” I was going to be the biggest disappointment at the Olympics and I was just going to retire and disappear. And God told me, “You can fail, but you can’t quit. You don’t have to wrestle. You don’t have to win. I don’t need you to do that. I gave you the sport because you love it and I knew you would enjoy it. You can have a happy life. You can have the peace you’re looking for. You can find it in Me. You’ll always have Me. But one day, you can’t quit on your future marriage and you can’t quit on your future children.” It was this gut feeling. I knew God was right. I had to push through so I wouldn’t get in the habit of quitting just because something is too hard. But I had to do it is way. So I started doing a prayer fast the first hour of my morning. No wonder I had so much anxiety. I wasn’t starting the day out with God. I was more worried about what I was eating and my weight. So when I started doing that, it totally changed everything. The week before the Olympics, I realized I had everything I’ve ever wanted. The thing I thought the gold medal would give me, I already had those things. I already had the faith and the perseverance and the peace and the love and the joy and having people in my life that supported me. God had already given me everything my heart really wanted. The last thing I needed to do was give my best effort for Him. So, I had so much freedom when I competed. It was how I got to worship Him. There’s no feeling to describe it.
Bonham: What Bible verses have spoken to you throughout this process?
Maroulis: One of the most consistent ones is 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” That one’s been with me a lot. I also love Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our LORD.”
Bonham: How do you feed your spirit and get your mind right before hitting the mat?
Maroulis: I like to watch a sermon before a competition. It’s just crazy how whatever I pick that day is always the one I need.
Bonham: What message are you passionate about that you hope to share with young wrestlers?
Maroulis: I’m really passionate about telling young wrestlers that there’s nothing that compares to the value of knowing Christ. That’s not to sound religious, but I have tried to use God and tried to force Him to do things my way. We get to have victories with Christ all day, every day. Don’t overlook those little victories. We’re pushing towards an end goal. I’ve fought my whole life against the thought, ‘What if I’m not good enough?’ The one person I’ve been able to turn to is God. Once I started doing that, it was amazing. God knew how I idolized the sport but He loved me enough to help me understand that He gave it to me to enjoy and for good. He wasn’t going to take it away from me. Instead, He showed me what He really intended for me to do with the sport and how to enjoy it. When I do it is way, it’s the most amazing thing ever. I love what I do. The more you fall in love with God, the more you’ll fall in love with life because He’s in all of it.
(Photos: Team USA; Ilgar Jafarov)