American wrestler Helen Maroulis scores big upset to win gold

She started off 1 and 30 in her wrestling career, but Helen Maroulis has come a long way since high school.

Maroulis, who said she wrestled against boys during her first decade on the mat before college, pulled one of the biggest upsets of the Olympics on Thursday, defeating Japanese superstar Saori Yoshida to win the United States’ first-ever gold medal in women’s wrestling. She unseated the three-time defending Olympic champion by a score of 4-1 in the 53 kilogram weight class.

“I’ve been imagining this for so many years and it’s just crazy that it has become a reality,” Maroulis said. “I just needed to trust myself and keep fighting.”

Less than 30 minutes after she stood crying tears of joy on the podium, Maroulis, 24, told members of the press she was surprised by Thursday’s result. But she said she had been studying Yoshida for the past four years. The two had last met in the 2012 World Championships, with Yoshida winning 4-0 for the gold medal in the 55 kilogram class.

“I’ve been willing to do anything to focus on wrestling and winning the gold medal,” Maroulis said. “And I knew this person was going to be in the way of that.”

Maroulis credited unorthodox methods to her training and mental preparation, which included spending the first two weeks in the United States’ Lonier training facility in Rio, to her success. Instead of staying in the Olympic Village where most of the Games’ nearly 12,000 athletes are lodged, Maroulis said she “stared at mountains” for two weeks. She watched Michael Phelps and Simone Biles dominate on television, and felt pride for her country.

But after a few days of watching, she eventually had to turn off the TV, she said, because she was getting too excited for her own good.

“Every day I felt like it was my day that I was competing, because I was so happy for Simone and Michael Phelps, so I just had to cut myself off,” Maroulis said. “I think it just helped me to zone everyone out.”

Yoshida, 33, had won gold in every Olympics and World Championship event she competed in since 2002, totaling 16 world titles, all but two in the 55 kilogram weight class. A shift in available women’s freestyle weight classes included a move from 55 kilograms in London to 53 kilograms for the Rio Olympics.