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Maroulis looks to make Olympic history against three-time champ
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL — If Helen Maroulis finds a way to win the Olympic championship at 53 kilograms this evening in Carioca 2 Arena, the American will do more than make history by becoming her country’s first Olympic gold medalist in women’s freestyle.
She also will have beaten a living legend.
For Maroulis, the 24-year-old native of Rockville, Md., must face Japan Saori Yoshida, who hopes to join teammate Kaori Icho — who won the 58-kilo title on Wednesday — as the sport’s first four-time Olympic champions.
And even though Maroulis is 0-2 in her career against Yoshida, don’t expect her to back down.
“We’ve been talking about beating Yoshida for the last three years. All of our training is to beat Yoshida. Pretty much the plan I’m saying now is a ‘secret,’ ” said Maroulis’ personal coach Valentin Kalika with a laugh. “We know her like a sister. We just have to make sure we’re not giving her respect.”
Maroulis, who is 0-2 in career bouts with Yoshida, earned a shot at the Japanese star after pinning another powerful wrestler — Sweden’s Sofia Mattsson, the 2009 World champion and three-time World silver medalist — with 36 seconds left in their semifinal bout … after leading 10-0.
That victory guaranteed the United States’ first 2016 Olympic medal after four Greco-Roman wrestlers failed to place earlier this week. Men’s freestyle, featuring 2012 Olympic champions Jordan Burroughs and 2015 World champ Kyle Snyder, runs from Friday to Sunday.
Earlier, Maroulis won three bouts, including a technical falls over Yuliia Khavaldzhy Blahinya, Ukraine, 12-1, and China’s Xuechun Zhong, 10-0, before showing remarkable fortitude in rallying to beat North Korea’s Suk Myong Jong, 7-4, in the quarterfinals.
Trailing 4-1 early in the second period, Maroulis scored three straight takedowns in the final minute to earn her shot against Yoshida.
“We’ve been working on her confidence,” Kalika said. “And she’s been praying about it every day. I believe mentally she’s ready to beat Yoshida.”
Maroulis was one of three former World championships that were looking to also become the United States’ first Olympic gold medalists.
Instead, Elena Pirozhkova will settle for a shot at a bronze medal at 63 kilos and three-time World champion Adeline Gray at 75 kilos will not wear any medal. Gray was upset in the quarterfinals to Belarus’ Vasilisa Marzuliuk, who then loss in the semifinals to end Gray’s first Olympic tournament.
Pirozhkova, who also wrestled in the 2012 Olympics appeared to have a good shot at reaching the gold medal bout after she rallied to beat 2015 World champion Battseteg Soronzonbold of Mongolia, 3-2, in the quarterfinals by scoring the deciding takedown at 3:54. Earlier, Pirozhkova, the 2012 World champ, also rallied to beat Taybe Mustafa Yusein, Bulgaria, 10-7.
But there would be no magic in the semifinals for the immigrant from Russia and native of Greenfield, Mass., when she lost 3-2 to Maryia Mamashuk of Belarus.
Gray also started his first Olympics strong when she pinned Olaya Gutierrez of Columbia in the first two-minutes of their first-round bout. But when it game to her 3-1 against Vasilisa Marzaliuk of Belarus in the quarters, she did not score any offensive points and more importantly gave up a takedown with two seconds left after Gray held criteria in what was a 1-1 deadlock.
“I overlooked that girl,” said Gray, a 25-year-old native of Lakewood, Colo., who defeated Marzaliuk, 6-0, en route to a third World championship last September in Las Vegas.
“You can’t overlook someone who’s got World and Olympic medals. I got defensive and tried to hang on to my lead. My passivity game is not great. I saw an opportunity to win with a 1-1 lead. I beat her nine times out of ten times and today she got the better of me.”
“We played the match too conservative,” said U.S. National coach Terry Steiner. “We were trying to win too easy. Then you open yourself up. In that situation at the end, you can’t get too defensive. You have to attack the position a little bit. We kind of pulled back, curled our body up a little bit and she pulled us underneath.”