Helen Maroulis has always been a fighter.
Her wrestling journey began at the age of seven when her older brother needed a sparring partner. In high school, she wrestled mostly against boys, helping change the landscape of wrestling in Maryland. She would shock the world in the 2016 Olympics, where she became the first ever female wrestler to win gold against Saori Yoshida, who was a 16-time world champion and going for her fourth gold medal.
Helen Maroulis had reached a point she had dreamed about for years up to that moment. But her toughest fight was ahead of her.
She would suffer two serious concussions that resulted in brain trauma, and she would later be diagnosed with PTSD. She would battle with an altered personality, uncontrollable emotions that led to her briefly retiring. Through wrestling, she would find a way to handle her symptoms to take home bronze in her Olympic return in Tokyo last year.
The journey back to that point as well as her road to recovery is chronicled in the upcoming documentary Helen | Believe (release date TBD). The film was produced by Religion of Sports, Reserve Entertainment, and Chris Pratt’s Indivisible Productions/.
Helen Maroulis spoke with Muscle and Fitness about the cathartic process of putting together the documentary and chronicling her recovery from her injury. She also discussed what led to her getting back on the mats and why she wanted to tell her story.
Telling the Story of Helen Maroulis
Andrea Courtney, who I knew because her son wrestled, she’s one of the producers on the film. In 2018, she introduced me to Dylan Mulick and we all just sat down and had a meeting and talked about possibly doing a documentary and covering my journey to the Tokyo Olympics. But this was before the worst of a lot of the concussions.
It was still in that middle period when I didn’t know if I had to retire yet. They came onboard and got connected with Religion of Sports, Reserve Entertainment and Chris Pratt’s production company Indivisible Productions. It just steamrolled from there and we started filming. It was really an incredible experience. I like how Religion of Sports aim to tell stories that makes believers and to really show the human behind the athlete and tell the entire story. That was the journey that I was going through — it was this rock bottom and just trying to overcome obstacles and build back that belief in myself. It was cool that they were there to film, capture, and tell it in such a beautiful way.
It was definitely cathartic and very healing. It’s cool because I’ve never been at a place in my life where I had to stop at certain milestones and do an hour-long interview, recap, or retell a story. I was very intentional with my thoughts and being very aware of what I was going through, what does this feel like, how will I describe the journey. Just to be able to put that in words, Dylan, the director, and the amazing group of people working on the project helped me tell that was really healing and I also feel like it really helped me prep for the Olympics as well.
Helen | Believe is a story of overcoming obstacles and believing in yourself. You don’t need to be an athlete to do that, and I think every single human goes through struggles and I think that every single human is designed for connectivity with each other and relating. I hope that people enjoy it and if they can draw any inspiration, help, or healing then I’d love it to leave a positive impact on others.
Helen Maroulis Gets Comfortable Opening Up About Mental Health
With the PTSD, when I got the diagnosis originally, I didn’t want to share with anyone, and it was really hard with the triggers. I wasn’t normal and I was going through a lot. Just the thought of sharing that with others wasn’t on my mind. I think maybe the lowest point was — and I think the movie touches on it a lot — was being in a very dark place and feeling like you’re never going to get back to normal. It wasn’t even about sport anymore. I just wanted to be healed and have a normal life and wondering if that was possible. I learned a lot about myself in the process.
A year ago, before Mental Health Awareness month in May, I thought about being more open about some of the things I went through. Our women’s team was working on a project to speak up more about that and we were all going to share some personal things. We got connected with these two women who work with girls that struggle with mental health and different issues.
They told us to be careful about asking other people to share what they’re going through because you don’t take into account what comes with that vulnerability. Once it’s out there, it’s out there and do you have the right things and people in place so that you can manage that?
For me, I knew that while I was going through what I felt like was the worst of my battles with the concussions and mental health stuff, I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t feel ready to talk about it and I think there was also this nice aspect of knowing that the camera is filming but it’s not going to come out yet. It was really interesting to be very open with the directors, producers and the people working on the project to be able to share what I was going through, some of the fears I had going to the Olympics, but I knew that no one was going to see this before the Olympics. That was a really cool process. I’m just a big believer that if you need help, reach out for it and just share with people that you trust and that have your best interest in mind also helps with the healing process.
I was really trying to hide it for a while from my family. I didn’t want to put a burden on them, and I didn’t want them to see it. I also know that they’re not experts in concussions, traumatic brain injuries, or mental health, so I know that they didn’t even know how to deal with it. I felt like when I finally went home and saw them face to face and they saw what I was going through, that was probably one of the first really big steps in my healing, to know that they are there and love me no matter what and they’re going to help me get better. To have that rock to lean on and that support was just so incredibly helpful. That extra COVID year was honestly just this time that I got to spend with my family, spend healing and there was no pressure or expectations from work on my end or theirs. It was really a healing time.
Helen Maroulis Is Taking Back Control
I moved home in December of 2019. My parents knew something wasn’t right and told me to come back. I started going to wrestling practices to help out at a local kid’s club to have something to do. It was never about coming back and competing again. I realized I could use wrestling to train out of symptoms and that’s what I started to do. Wrestling was where a lot of the trauma happened, so if I wanted some triggers to go away, it felt like I almost had to confront everything face to face and relearn how to be in the sport and fall in love with it again.
Within a six-week span, I decided to do a competition and ended up qualifying for the Olympic team trials. It was just like in a matter of weeks, going from completely retired to you are back on the scene again and if you win this qualifier, you’re automatically in the finals of Olympic trails. That’s what happened but I never expected it. I thought I was going there just to lose. I’d get to put a singlet on one more time and just see how that feels. I never would have thought it would go from 0 to 100 again. It was really eye opening. Then COVID happened and I was still all about protecting my health, being safe with my family. I didn’t want anyone to see me and see what I was battling. In November of 2020 was when it all clicked, and I realized I felt healthy, and I could finally prioritize performance and I needed to go find a way to train and make this about the Olympics again.
Medaling in Tokyo
Honestly, medaling in Tokyo was one of the best feelings in my life. It meant something completely different to me and it was just so special to get to do what I love again and to get on that big stage. I think because I probably thought I don’t have that much time left in wrestling, I just appreciated everything. The first time winning in Rio was like, “Oh my God, this is amazing!” I was just in shock by everything. In Tokyo, it was I’m carrying the weight of all my experiences with me, and this is just special. I always wondered if I lost at an Olympics, is it going to be something where you just live the rest of your life with regret or wishing you did something differently. I see now what I could have done differently to win but I don’t regret it at all. I really don’t because that journey was about me healing, overcoming, and believing. I feel like I did those things to the best of my abilities, so I’m proud of that.
How A Change in Priorities Helped Helen Maroulis
I think with all of the injuries, I definitely prioritize my health first and foremost in my training and my mental health. I will do just as many recovery therapy sessions, rehab stuff, some type of mental and emotional therapy to just be at my best self and the wrestling part I feel will just fall into place, whereas before it was about putting wrestling first. Now, I will put my mental health first. You can just go to your coach and say I’m not in the right headspace to do XYZ and I’ve really learned how to speak up for myself to say that and it’s been amazing. I’m with great people that support me in that, and it’s been really cool.
Shift in Conversations about Mental Health
Just seeing athletes and they’re always on their A-game and we admire them because of what they achieve, and it seems they can go out there and do whatever they put their minds to, but the reality is that no athlete is on 100 percent of the time. No human is on 100 percent of the time, and I think we need to be real with that and real with ourselves.
Also, learning how to define success. You can win a gold medal and those same things that drove you to win can drive you to a really broken place after sport. I saw some of that happening in my life and I saw this obsession and lack of balance in my life, and it kept snowballing. Now, pushing sport in a different way, we can enjoy sports and prioritize our health and everything outside of that and have it be a well-balanced approach. I think athletes sharing and speaking up about that has been amazing and it’s really shifting the narrative.
You can follow Helen Maroulis on Instagram @helen_maroulis.