Adeline Gray: From the Mat to Motherhood

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Updated: December 21, 2022

Photo: Six-time World freestyle champ Adeline Gray (right) did not compete in the 2022 World Cup in Coralville in December. But she did attend the event with husband Damaris Sanders and their four-month-old twins, A.D. (left) and O.J. (Photo by Ginger Robinson)

By Mike Finn

There have been so many great moments in the life of women’s freestyle wrestler Adeline Gray. But nothing may be greater in her memory than July 23, 2022, when this six-time World champion also became a mother of twin babies.

“I think it’s so unique that you have Adeline Gray, one of the greatest wrestlers of all time … but now she’s a mom and people, who all have their own little fight going on, can learn from this,” said Nate Engel, who has served as Gray’s personal coach since 2018, including the summer and fall of 2021 when she won an Olympic silver medal and a record-setting sixth World championship in her career.

Engel is a former Senior-level Greco-Roman wrestler with the Army, who now serves as an assistant coach at Oregon State, where he also runs the Beaver Dam Regional Training Center in Corvallis. He’s quick to point out the birth of a boy (A.D.) and girl (Juice) to Gray and her husband Damaris Sanders, like her wrestling career, has not always been a storybook tale. In fact, this is a story Gray had hoped to have play out at least a year earlier.

“There was a quote from Adeline that I will never forget for the rest of my life, leading up to the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 when she said, ‘At this time, I thought I’d see a baby bump and instead I see a six-pack.’ That was really tough because she really wanted to become a mom and was going to start a family after 2020 but then the Olympics were postponed for a year.”

Engel also knows Adeline can be tough on herself.

“She’s a perfectionist,” said Engel, adding a little humor about the fact Gray doubled up in becoming a mother; something Nate and his wife McKayla also experienced with the birth of their sons, Breck and Brody, nearly three years ago. In a sense, Nate and his wife also became parenthood coaches for Adeline and Damaris.

“Adeline is so special that it was not a surprise that she got pregnant with twins because if there was one person in the wrestling world I figured would have twins, it would be Adeline because she doesn’t do anything halfway,” he said.

That truly has been the case for this 31-year-old native of Denver, Colo., who has represented the United States in all but two World and Olympic competitions since 2011. During that time, she became the first American wrestler — woman or man — to earn six World championships; a mark that Jordan Burroughs tied this fall.

Nate Engel (right) helped Adeline Gray to an Olympic silver medal and record sixth all-time World championship in 2021. Engel, the father of twins, also helped Adeline and her husband with pointers on being the parents of twins. (Tony Rotundo photo)

So, what has been a bigger accomplishment for Gray, dominating the women’s wrestling world at 76 kilos … or becoming a mother?

“They are just so different and I don’t know how to describe how different they are,” said Gray. “They each have a piece that is so incredibly different, but at the same time there are so many crossovers and similarities. They are both things I am incredibly proud of my body for accomplishing.”

Gray said she doesn’t want her becoming a mother to be misconstrued any differently than the miracle of any woman becoming a mother. But, she’s learned motherhood also has its own gold-medal moments for women.

“I am incredibly impressed with the strength of the female body in pregnancy and childbirth and then being able to transform and take care of these kids afterwards … it’s truly something that is a marvel,” she said. “I think we take for granted how special each and every one of us are. It’s a very cliché thing, that once you do bring life into this world, you do have kind of a special connection that is unlike anything else in this world.

“My kids really do have something special and it brought an awareness to how cool humanity is. And now I get to draw back on these moments when I got to be strong and powerful and brave in my wrestling career and use my body in very different ways. It’s been amazing to have these two pieces in my life.

“Will my medals seem less or more (important) when I realize how truly magical my kids are? They (medals and now having kids) are in such different categories in my life. I’m happy I have both.”

And with motherhood comes the sleepless nights that she also shares with her husband, whom she first met in 2013 and married in 2016. Damaris, who is a major in the Army, was a three-sport athlete while traveling around the world in a military family. But, he knew little about wrestling.

Since meeting Adeline, he knows how strong she can be.

“I think a couple of her strengths are her mental strength and resiliency and ability to adapt to any situation,” Damaris said. “It comes back to her ability to compete and adapt that she showed on the mat during her career.”

Damaris said that was especially true when COVID hit about the same time they were thinking about starting a family.

“You have to retool and rethink and get the body reset because you have to wait another year. I think it has made her really strong and it’s one of the skills that have made her better than most of the rest.”

Damaris, who actually wanted twins before learning they had two babies growing inside Adeline, has also seen the softer side of his wife since the babies were born.

“I would say Adeline has taken to (motherhood),” he said. “She loves being a mother. She is a lot softer than I am. You can see it in how she manages the personalities of the twins. Our son is more laid back and chill while our daughter is a little more boisterous and a little bit of a drama queen.”

Spending all those months of pregnancy with the twins, Gray would not be surprised if they wrestled; something they did plenty while in her womb.

“They were fighting for space and were doing some push-out drills,” joked Adeline. “I don’t know if they were quite doing wrestling moves. They definitely are kicking each other now. Every time I put them down, it’s just the cutest thing. They are really good at single-legs right now.”

Overall, Adeline has nine World/Olympic medals; tying her with Kristie (Davis) Marano, who also collected nine medals around her neck between 1996 and 2007. And like Gray, Marano also became a mother during her run as one of the U.S. stand-outs in the sport.

Gray would also like to return to the mat in hopes of collecting her first Olympic gold medal; the only thing missing from her wrestling resume.

“By no means is this uncharted territory,” she said. “We have a multitude of women who are navigating this world of having this career of sport and not starving off our goals and dreams of also having families and that responsibility we put upon ourselves.”

But Gray, who lifted weights up to the time she went into labor, is also dealing with her own physical health after producing two babies that were each over six pounds. Gray has dealt with injuries in her wrestling career, including a dislocated kneecap in 2010 and both shoulder/knee surgery in 2017. Her current issue is something only mothers know.

“I have something that is called Diastasis Recti (tearing of the abdomen),” she said. “My babies were big and wonderful and healthy. The fact that I had close to 14 pounds of babies, my frame did stretch a little more than my abs allowed. I have a separation that I have to heal up before I’m allowed to get back on the mat full time. This can be common for many mothers and they believe it will heal. It’s a matter of how long until the tissue is better, which is kind of tough. I’m trying to be patient, but it’s taking longer than I wanted.”

There is also a timeline issue for Gray, who could wait until early 2024 to get back on the mat before the Olympic Trials in hopes of making the Paris Games later that summer.

“I’m really going to rely on the fact I have a ton of experience and I’ve come back from injuries,” she said. “I was able to be competitive right off the bat. That trust in myself is still there. I don’t have any lack of belief that I will be competitive. It will just take time.”

In the end, Adeline hopes to become a role model for working moms and female athletes everywhere, to show them they can be a mom and have a career. She is also looking forward to her babies watching and cheering her on as she gets back on the mat and into training at an elite level again.

Engel will be among those around Gray as she hopes to earn Olympic gold. He also believes she will continue to create a legacy for her children and others.

“You want your kids to look up to you and see that you are hard-working,” he said. “Adeline and her husband want to pass on that you have to work hard to be successful in life and nothing comes easy. Someday (the twins) will grow up and realize their mother literally changed the trajectory of women’s wrestling and had a huge voice in that. “Adeline is going to be a great mentor to help their kids through their stages of life.”

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