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CHIBA, Japan — Helen Maroulis likes to write in a journal. Always did.
When she was around 12 years old, she jotted down an aspiration that boiled down to "Win two Olympic wrestling medals: one freestyle, one folkstyle."
“I did accomplish the goal, I guess,” Maroulis said, although folkstyle isn't on the Olympic program. “It’s a dream come true.”
After winning a bronze medal in the women's 57kg freestyle on Thursday, Maroulis became the first woman in U.S. wrestling history to own two medals.
In Rio, the medal was gold, as Maroulis shocked the field and emerged a champion. She had no idea what the next five years had in store for her.
“I have such a peace about (bronze)," she said. "And I’m like ‘Man, why am I not more sad?' I spent four years trying to get back, my wrestling, just to not have fear.
“That is the biggest gift.”
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The Rockville, Maryland native has been to the top and to what she’s called rock bottom. A bronze medal is certainly nothing to be ashamed of in her eyes.
Maroulis endured debilitating concussions and battled post-traumatic stress disorder during the ensuing quadrennial after Rio. At one point, she heard voices in her head, as the Washington Post detailed earlier this week. Opponents have targeted her head nonetheless.
She disregarded all of that on her way to a technical superiority (11-0) victory against Mongolia’s Khongorzul Boldsaikhan for a bronze.
“I thank God so much just for making me healthy,” she said after standing on the podium.
Winning in Rio was the hardest thing she’d ever done – or so she thought.
“I had to ask everything of myself," she admitted. "I was at the breaking point.”
She was all-in at the time and knew the upcoming quad was going to be harder. Then came the concussions and the expectations. She couldn’t sit in a room with the lights on, yet people were counting on her to trot out to the mat. She couldn’t make eye contact with people.
“If you told me in 2016 what I would have had to go through,” she said, “I probably would’ve retired right then. This was harder. This was harder. This was harder for sure. There were really deep, dark, dark moments. But this is way more rewarding.”
She felt healed – mind, body, soul – by the time she left for Tokyo.
Had she wrestled in her previous “sloppy” form, she said, and won gold, she wouldn’t be capable of savoring the experience the way she did Thursday night inside Makuhari Messe Hall.
“I’d rather take the bronze medal but wrestle the way that I did," Maroulis said.
Regrets only come when you’re not at the top of your own game, she added.
“If you go out there and you lose and you feel like you were a little bit timid or held back, that’s the worst feeling. Because you can’t ever go back and re-do that moment,” the 29-year-old said.
Over the past five years, Maroulis has learned a lot about herself. She's a stronger person now. Maybe she lacked certain qualities when she was a gold-medalist, she said.
“My mindset was different then," she said. "Maybe I took wrestling for granted, because I never knew what it was like to not have wrestling, to not have my health, to not have a lot of things that I just always had. This is really special.”
The adversity didn't simply go away when she returned to serious training after the concussions. Maroulis took up dancing during the pandemic but a knee injury forced her to stop. A harp player, she was instructed by doctors told to stop playing because it was causing forearm tightness.
In June at the Poland Open, where she lost 13-0, Maroulis said that if anyone pulled at her knee, her MCL would have been seriously injured. There'd be no Tokyo Olympics. But she needed to feel international competition.
“Yeah it sucked to lose," she said. "But I thought ‘I’ll lose this battle to win the war.’ Poland was the biggest game-changer for me. It just gave me clarity.”
That vision led to training in Arizona with an emphasis on strength.
Meanwhile, social media trolls messaged that she was washed up. That she didn’t look like herself since the concussions.
“But you don’t see what I see,” she said.
Maroulis isn't sure about her future in wrestling. She loves the sport, obviously. Loves where her form is at. But she’ll need another sign.
God gave her a promise about the 2020 Games, she said, the day after her winning gold in Rio.
“If I didn’t have that, I would have quit so many times throughout this whole quad. I really held onto that. I know I made a commitment,” she says.
“I’m taking a lot of things back with me,” she added. “Including a medal.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tokyo Olympics: Wrester Helen Maroulis overcomes hurdles to win bronze