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The Rush: Olympic wrestler Maroulis on breaking barriers, mental health and making a difference

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Helen Maroulis became the first American woman to medal in wrestling in 2016 winning gold in Rio, and after a harrowing journey to Tokyo, she made history again winning bronze. Maroulis joins Liz Loza in conversation about the U.S. women’s medal domination in Tokyo, what it feels like to smash glass ceilings, how traumatic brain injury put her future in doubt, the importance of having conversations about mental health, and the lighter side of her Tokyo Games experience… spoiler, it involved Karaoke. Plus, Maroulis is working to make the world a better place and with help from P&G’s Athletes for Good grant, she’s helping refugees across the globe.

Video Transcript

HELEN MAROULIS: My favorite moment In Tokyo [INAUDIBLE]. Honestly, I have the most amazing teammate. Her name is Tamyrah Mensah-Stock. She is the first African-American female to win a gold medal for US women's wrestling. She is clearly my top five favorite humans ever.

She's such a gem. She's such a light. But she's so funny. She brought a karaoke machine. Oh, and by the end of the trip, everyone's belting karaoke. Everyone's got their songs. And that was probably the highlight. I never thought that I would sing karaoke in my Olympic preparation camp.

LIZ LOZA: What's your go-to?

HELEN MAROULIS: We sang "The Lion King." I was Timon. And she was Simba. So yeah, I worked really hard on that Timon voice. I-- they-- they told me I did a good job, so.

- Hakuna matata, what a wonderful phrase.

LIZ LOZA: I'm here with two-time Olympic medalist, wrestling badass, Helen Maroulis. Welcome to The Rush, Helen.

HELEN MAROULIS: Hi. Thank you so much, Liz. It's awesome to be here.

LIZ LOZA: Oh my gosh, I'm so excited you're here. You are a serial barrier breaker, first with gold in 2016 and now bronze in Tokyo. Has it set in yet that over the last five years, you've been a history maker?

HELEN MAROULIS: I won the World Championships in 2015. And then I won the Olympics in 2016. And I've always struggled with confidence. And so I went to the World Championships in 2017. And I remember after 2017 , thinking, like, OK, maybe I'm good at wrestling. I think I-- I've become good at wrestling. I don't think it was a lucky day. Like, I think I can-- and it was like, this is ridiculous. But I-- I don't know. So it-- maybe it takes a little bit longer for it to set in for me.

LIZ LOZA: If the American women were a country, they would be fourth in the medal count in Tokyo. I want to know what you think the world can learn from the US Olympic ladies in 2021.

HELEN MAROULIS: Oh, that is amazing. Oh my gosh, I am so inspired by that. All the women at this Olympics have inspired me. You know, Simone Biles and everything that she went through. And then coming back and getting bronze. And then Allyson Felix just won her 10th medal. And so, you know, sometimes when you go through hard moments in your own athletic career, it's like, OK, you know, no one's ever won two gold medals in my sport.

I'm trying to break this barrier. But OK, there's Claressa Shields. She won two gold medals in boxing. Or there's Kayla Harrison. She won two gold medals in judo. And so to read off and start studying them in their stories. And I can read something that inspires me or encourages me. It's so nice that we have each other. I think women's empowerment is incredibly important. And I think that it's awesome that they're, kind of, leaving their stamp on the world.

LIZ LOZA: Let's talk about your road to Tokyo. Because it has been paved with physical injuries, including a brain trauma and being hospitalized due to mental health issues. How special is this bronze medal given all that it took to get back to the game?

HELEN MAROULIS: Oh, this bronze medal is so special. It's incredible. And I wouldn't-- I wouldn't change it for the world. You know, I-- I remember somebody asked-- one of the reporters asked, oh, are you-- are you bitter that you didn't win the-- win the gold? And I just thought, no, absolutely not.

LIZ LOZA: And you have been delivering powerful messages, particularly related to athlete mental health for a few years. What was it like to have so many of your fellow Olympians join in the conversation this time around?

HELEN MAROULIS: It was so healing, so helpful, even-- heart-wrenching and-- at times. Because, you know, you just wonder, like, did anyone reach out to Simone Biles before this? Or-- or were people talking to her about mental health? Could this have been avoided? And I remember when I was really at my lowest of lows, when I got out of the mental hospital in 2019, I went to the USOPC sports medicine.

And I said, oh my gosh, am I the worst case you've ever seen? And they're like, what are you talking about? No, like, you'd be surprised how many athletes have mental health issues. And my exact words, I said, why is no one talking about this? Like, I just-- I felt so alone. And so, you know, my heart goes out to any athlete going through that. And I just want them to know that they're not alone. And I think the more we talk about it and help each other, it can really bring change in that area.

LIZ LOZA: You are using your warrior skill on the mat to do incredible work outside of wrestling in partnership with P&G. Tell me about how you two are working together to make a difference.

HELEN MAROULIS: Yeah, so I mean, P&G, not only do they support me as an athlete and they support other fellow Olympians, but they came out with the Athlete for Good Fund in 2020. And so that provided tons of grants, $10,000 dollars grants for-- for the causes that we're a part of.

And I partnered with When We Band Together in 2017 to help refugees in Lesbos, Greece. My father is an immigrant from Greece. And that's how I-- I got connected there. And went over there and just saw how heartbreaking it was. And so when P&G-- you know, when I heard about this grant and-- and won the grant, I was so grateful. Because that allowed us to help us build a center.

And now we're providing all these different resources for the refugees there from-- and it's what they want, where it's what they're asking for, like music lessons, English lessons, guitar lessons, self-defense classes. And, you know, my goal is to go over there and teach wrestling.

LIZ LOZA: What does the immediate future look like for Helen Maroulis?

HELEN MAROULIS: Ooh, I'm going to go home to my family and my dog. But-- and then I'm-- I'm actually going to Greece.

LIZ LOZA: Helen, thank you so much for being on the show. This is actually our 800th episode of The Rush. And we are so thrilled we got to commemorate the achievement with you.

HELEN MAROULIS: Yeah, congratulations. Happy 800th episode. That's amazing.

LIZ LOZA: Well, congratulations to you. Happy second Olympic medal.

HELEN MAROULIS: Thank you. Thank you.