IOWA CITY, Iowa — The wait can be excruciating.
By winning the U.S. Open Wrestling Championships last December at 55kg/121 lbs, Helen Maroulis of Rockville, Md., earned a much-coveted bye into the finals of the Olympic Trials on Saturday night. So while Maroulis rests up at her hotel, ten other women will grapple through the morning challenge round at the University of Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the right to face her.
Though it puts the 22-year-old Maroulis in a commanding position to make her first Olympic team, managing the anticipation and stress offers a challenge in itself. Maroulis faced the same day-long wait at the World Team Trials in Oklahoma City last June and handled it well. She beat Ashley Hudson two matches to none in the best-of-three finals, then went on to finish fifth at the world championships.
“I didn’t watch any matches,” she said Friday afternoon. “My coach [Kevin Black] called and said, ‘Here’s who you have. Be ready at 6.’ It worked out pretty well, even though it was a person I didn’t expect at all.”
Saturday, Maroulis expects to work out a little in the morning, then relax, drink fluids and check in with friends and family by phone until leaving for the arena. Maroulis’s plan mirrors that of 2008 Olympian Clarissa Chun, who also earned a bye at 48kg/105.5 lbs.
“Like my coaches taught me, don’t spend time wasting your energy watching the competition, because it doesn’t matter,” Chun said. “You’ve going to have to wrestle and give it your all no matter who comes out. And I’ve always been one who’s like, who is it?
“So I usually try to wait, impatiently. I try to relax, watch a movie, get my mind off wrestling for a little bit, because that can be draining, too. Movies are a good distraction for me.”
The Olympics feature only four weight classes for women, three fewer than the world championships, and two of Maroulis‘ chief competitors dropped down from 59 kg/130 lbs. Leigh Jaynes, 31, forced Maroulis to a deciding third match at the U.S. Open last December before losing, 1-0. Kelsey Campbell, 26, took third at the U.S. Open. Two-time world bronze medalist Tatiana Padilla, 21, could also be a factor after missing much of last season with an injury.
Maroulis said her parents, John and Paula, chose not to attend to lessen the pressure on her. However, NBC isn’t airing the Trials finals live. “My dad said, ‘We’ll sit at home and wait until the next day,’” she said.
Instead, Maroulis said she has people set up to text her parents while her match is in progress. “They’ll get a play by play,” she said.
Other competitors with local ties include Naval Academy graduate John Cox, in the heavily-contested Greco-Roman 66kg/145.5 lbs class; Brent Jones (Fairfax Robinson High School/University of Virginia) in a freestyle field at 96 kg/211.5 lbs. headed by world bronze medalist Jake Varner; Arundel High School product Nicole Woody in women’s 48kg/105 lbs, where Chun is the favorite; and Mack Lewnes (Mount St. Joseph High School) in freestyle 84 kg/185 lbs. All but Woody wrestle on Saturday.
One big name won’t be competing here. Rulon Gardner, the 2000 Olympic super-heavyweight gold medalist in Greco-Roman, did not weigh in. Once as heavy as 474 pounds, the 40-year-old Gardner needed to get down to 264 by Friday. Tuesday, a New York public relations firm representing Gardner said he still had 20 pounds to lose.
“I’m disappointed I didn’t make the weigh-in,” Gardner said in a statement released by USA Wrestling. “I worked hard. I was within five pounds. I’m glad I did this and have my health back. I’ll talk more about my journey tomorrow.”