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Past adversity helped American trio win Olympic medals

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Updated: August 5, 2021

Photo: From left, David Taylor celebrated winning his first Olympic gold medal, while Helen Maroulis and Thomas Gilman (right) added Olympic bronze medals to their resume. (John Sachs photos)

By Bryan Van Kley, WIN Publisher

TOKYO – You don’t always have to overcome some steep adversity to get to the top in life, but in a sport as tough as wrestling, it unfortunately is usually required.

Such was the case with the journeys that eventually sent three Olympic freestyle medalists from the United States — David Taylor (as a gold medalist), Helen Maroulis (bronze) and Thomas Gilman (bronze) — to the 2020 Games’ podium Makuhari Messe Hall on Aug. 5.

Even though each of these wrestlers had already earned an Olympic or World medal before leaving for Japan and the current Olympics, all three overcame past obstacles Thursday night to let them be part one of USA’s top Olympic performances in wrestling by ending their tournament with impressive victories.

Taylor has been the “kid prodigy” since first growing up in Wyoming and had been destined to win Olympic gold … and he proved it when he scored a last-second takedown to beat 2016 Olympic champ Hassan Yazdani of Iran for the 86-kilogram championship in men’s freestyle.

Meanwhile, both Maroulis, the 2016 Olympic champ, and Gilman, who found a new home and wrestling life in State College, Pa., smiled as they put bronze medals around their necks.

Taylor, 30, set a goal when he was eight years old and told others he wanted to be a four-time state champ, four-time national champ, World champ and Olympic champion. And, he had a specific road map to follow Cael Sanderson who originally lived just across the border in Utah.

As a young kid, Taylor saw what Sanderson was doing putting together his 159-0 record in college at Iowa State en route to four national titles. And he watched him on television win an Olympic gold medal 17 years ago in Athens, Greece.

Each step — first moving with his family to Ohio for high school and eventually to Penn State for college success and his current home — cemented Taylor’s resolve to be like Sanderson and, most importantly, wrestle like Cael Sanderson.

That meant not only winning matches and dominating opponents. Taylor and his family even drove an hour and 45 minutes one way multiple times a week when he was growing up to train with the Sanderson family in Utah.

For the past 25 years in his wrestling career, Taylor estimated that he has scored bonus points in 90 percent of the matches he’s wrestled. So many people not as familiar with Taylor’s story would say, ‘It doesn’t seem like there’s much adversity at all that he’s had to deal with. He truly has been destined to one day bring home an Olympic gold and now he simply went out and did that.’

However, Taylor’s path to Tokyo gold had some serious obstacles.

In his first shot at the coveted NCAA title his freshman year in Penn State, Arizona State’s Bubba Jenkins (who previously wrestled at Penn State before transferring to ASU) pinned the super-star freshman, ending any chance he had at becoming only the sport’s third four-time champ like his hero Sanderson had done.

It was a crushing defeat that Taylor said still stings the most. But said it’s a loss that helped make him the wrestler, who scored a double-leg takedown on one of the best wrestlers in the world in Iran’s three-time World/Olympic champion with four seconds left to clinch the American’s first men’s freestyle title of these Games.

“There was no way I wasn’t going to go find a way, even if I had to rip my arms off and find a way if I had to,” said Taylor, who also was forced to miss the 2019 international season after claiming a World title in 2018.

Taylor, who also had come up short in the past just making World/Olympic teams ahead of the likes of Jordan Burroughs, Kyle Dake and J’den Cox, reflected some on his long career, knowing for certain some of his key losses prepared him for the gold-medal final here in Tokyo, the biggest match of his life.

“Those moments of letting matches slip away hurt really bad at the time,” he said. “But, looking back, I’m thankful for them. If you look back at the internal run over the last four or five years, yeah I’ve dominated people. But I’ve had to have some gutsy come-from-behind victories. I’m really proud of those. Tonight was one of those. That was full circle for me.”

 

For Maroulis, the weight cutting to get down to 53 kilos in Rio for the 2016 Games and the pressure of trying to win in a weight that included Japanese three-time Olympic gold medalist Saori Yoshida very nearly broke her.

Sources very close to her said she said wanted to quit within two months of the 2016 Olympics. But with a lot of the right type of support and an ability to depend on her Christian faith, she didn’t quit. And Maroulis accomplished what some thought was impossible in Rio: beating Yoshida, who had won 13 World/Olympic golds in the finals.

Unfortunately, things got even tougher after Rio. Maroulis has endured several concussions, the first happening in a pro league in India where wasn’t properly treated after it happened, leaving numerous physical problems afterwards that the Rockville, Md., native has had to overcome.

But amazingly, she has stayed the course and put herself back the Olympic podium with a dominating 11-0 bronze medal victory at 57 kilos over Mongolia’s Krongorzul Boldsaikhan. This happened one night after Maroulis suffered a tough 2-1 semifinal loss to Japan’s Olympic champion Kawai Risako, who had dropped down from her 2016 weight from of 62 kilos.

Maroulis, 29, said the adversity of dealing with the concussions proved to be an even more significant obstacle to competing in these Games than what she dealt with in 2016. The concussions forced her off the mat for long periods of time and then affected the way she wrestled in some ways after she returned. It led some on-line critics to questioning if Helen was “washed up” and if she’d ever return to the form that helped her win World titles (2015 and 2017) and the 2016 Olympic gold medal. Maroulis said ignored everything on social media.

“This was harder for sure,” she said. “There were dark, dark moments. But this is way more rewarding because I have learned so much about myself and grown so much as a person. Some of those things I didn’t have winning the gold medal in Rio.”

 

Gilman, 27, was a highly-heralded four-time Nebraska state high school champ and eventually a three-time All-American at Iowa (2015-2017). But he never won the elusive NCAA title.

But transitioning to his Senior-level, Gilman won a World silver medal at 57 kilos in 2017, but then failed to medal the following year. Many people expected him to secure the lightest weight on the U.S. freestyle team in other years, only to see Gilman fall short at the Olympic or World Team Trials.

But in 2020, Gilman made a significant change in his wrestling career moving from training in Iowa City with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club to State College, Pa., with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, thinking a change in wrestling rooms may help improve him as a wrestler and take the next step.

“There were a lot of changes I’ve made in the last year and a quarter — mentally, emotionally and spiritually that have allowed me to be here. I’ve taken my bumps and bruises along in the way and was down in a little ditch, but now we’re back up out of it. I think the best wrestling in my life has come along at the most amazing time, and that is now.”

Gilman showed that in Tokyo, where he lost a tough first-round match, but found himself back in repechage where he dominated two foes, including Iran’s Reza Atrina in the bronze-medal bout.

“I’m just so ecstatic about the way I wrestled,” he said,

Gilman might have found himself in the gold-medal match, had he not suffered a 5-4 setback to Russia’s Zavur Uguev, who scored a takedown in the finals seconds of that bout.

In that match, Gilman got his first lead with 46 seconds to go in the match, with a body-lock on the Russian from kind of whizzer. But with five seconds to go, out of desperation, Uguev stood straight up and flipped backwards, exposing Gilman in the process, the two exposure points giving him the one-point win, much to the disbelief of Gilman and the entire U.S. wrestling contingent who thought Gilman had him beat.

Fortunately for Gilman, Russian also came from behind in the closing seconds of his 6-6 quarterfinal victory over Uzbekistan’s Gulomjon Abdullaev before Uguev later beating Atrina to earn the Russian a spot in the gold medal match … and pulled Gilman back into the repechage.

How does an athlete like Gilman get past that mentally, when it would be only natural to stay in that negative spot mentally losing the biggest match of your life in such a heart-breaking way, Gilman said he knew there was only one way to respond.

“It goes back to something my grandfather told me over and over growing up, ‘Don’t think too much,’” Gilman said. “I had pretty good faith he was going to pull me back in the tournament. I just controlled what I could control.”

All three of these American Olympic medalists did just that and are now helping America enjoy one of its finest Olympics ever.

2020 Olympic wrestling medal count (All Styles)

Rk.CountryGuaranteedStill Possible•
1.United States64
1.Russia63
3.Japan52
4Ukraine41
5.China31
5.Germany30
5.Kyrgyzstan32
5.Iran33

 

This includes the six wrestlers who qualified for Friday night’s final There are 18 available medals left: six bronze medals that will be awarded Friday evening and 12 more medals — three gold, three silver and six bronze — in the three weights that will be determined Saturday night.

  • – These are the number of wrestlers these countries still have competing for one of those remaining medals.

 

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