RIO DE JANEIRO – Helen Maroulis shocked the world.
Maroulis became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in women’s freestyle wrestling and she did so by knocking out arguably the greatest athlete in her sport.
Maroulis did the improbable by beating three-time Olympic gold medalist and 13-time world champion Saori Yoshida of Japan 4-1 in the 116-pound final in front of a boisterous crowd of 6,000 fans on Thursday night at Carioca Arena 2.
Maroulis ran around the mat holding an American flag above his head to celebrate the historic victory.
“It’s an amazing feeling to do that – it hasn’t really taken off yet but it’s just amazing to win a gold medal. It’s a dream come true,” said Maroulis. “It is such an honor to win a gold medal for my country. It means so much to do so because I have sacrificed so much and worked so hard to get there.”
The victory has been compared to American Rulon Gardner’s stunning Greco-Roman Olympic finals against Russia’s three-time gold medalist Alexander Karelin at the 2000 Olympics.
“Saori Yoshida is our sport’s greatest champion and has set the bar very high,” said US coach Terry Steiner. “For Helen Maroulis, beating her is a tremendous accomplishment. It took a long time and we are happy to finally be able to get rid of this monkey.”
Yoshida was looking to join fellow Japanese star Kaori Icho as a quadruple Olympic gold medalist.
“Yoshida is a great champion and what she has accomplished is truly impressive,” said Maroulis. “I dreamed so much of wrestling in this game. I was able to stay in the moment and focus on my game plan. We have been working on preparing for this game for a year and it has paid off.”
Maroulis entered the game with his own impressive credentials. She won a world title last year at 121 pounds after winning silver and bronze medals in the world. It has risen to 116 this year.
Maroulis was 0-2 against Yoshida before Thursday, losing to her in 2011 and 2012. Yoshida pinned Maroulis in the 2012 world final.
Led 1-0 after the first period on Thursday, Maroulis used a throw-in maneuver to slip past Yoshida for an out early in the second period. Maroulis appeared to score an elimination point with one minute to go, but shoved Yoshida off for a two-point strike to lead 4-1.
Both the mat judge and the president confirmed the withdrawal and Japan chose not to contest the appeal.
Yoshida won a total of 16 Olympic and world titles over a 14-year span leading up to Thursday’s setback. Thursday’s loss was only the third in his stellar career.
Twelve years ago, American and CTO resident Sara McMann had a second-period lead in the first women’s Olympic final in 2004 before Icho won her first of four Olympic titles.
“It’s been a long, long road,” said Steiner, who became the US national coach in 2002. “It’s very satisfying to finally accomplish this. It hasn’t been easy at all, but it was definitely worth it. I can ‘I can’t say enough about what Helen did to become our first Olympic champion. She really deserves it. “
Maroulis and Yoshida fell to the mat a few meters from each other at the end of the match, overcome with emotion.
“I really hope this puts women’s wrestling on the map,” said Maroulis. “I think wrestling can become more popular and I think it can grow. With this gold medal the girls in the United States are now realizing what they can achieve in this sport. I hope that will inspire no more young girls to get into wrestling. I was a very shy and shy kid when I was very young and wrestling has helped me gain confidence. You can enjoy this sport so much. “