ALPHARETTA, GA – Greek-American Olympic gold medalist in wrestling at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games Helen Maroulis was featured in the Washington Post not only for her wrestling talent, but for her diagnosis with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Usually associated with veterans who fought in wars, PTSD may affect anyone who has suffered brain injuries and other trauma.
The Rockville, MD resident in the summer of 2018 was admitted voluntarily to a psychiatric treatment center in Utah where doctors made the PTSD diagnosis which they said was due to concussions “from wrestling, the thing she loved the most,” the Post reported.
Maroulis “had always thought Olympic champions were invincible, but after she became one, her world collapsed,” the Post reported, adding that “it was a descent that began with a seemingly harmless palm to her forehead during a professional match in India early in 2018 that led to more concussions that led to the confusion, the uncontrolled crying, the voices and the PTSD diagnosis.”
“For more than two years, she felt hopeless and lost, every attempt at recovery ending with another brain injury,” the Post reported, noting that “several times she told herself she was done with wrestling, until finally, last year, she healed,” and “then this past April, she secured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics, something she couldn't have imagined happening just months before.”
“Wrestling, for the first time in my life, wasn't my safe place anymore, and it wasn't kind of my place to just de-stress,” Maroulis told the Post, “it actually was the place of all my trauma and of all my pain. And so I actually didn't like wrestling at all. I hated it.”
“Back home in Maryland, her father, John, a Greek immigrant who once wrestled, laments that his daughter `has not been the same since the first concussion,'” the Post reported, adding that “he wishes she would quit. There were many times in the past three years when she was sure she would, believing she was too broken to go on.”
“Something keeps bringing her back,” Terry Steiner, the U.S. wrestling team's women's coach told the Post.
“Wrestling had damaged her, but it also was the thing that had made her strong, the one activity that never bothered her as a shy child, the sport that showed her the world and made her the first in her family to leave the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC,” the Post reported, noting that “she didn't give up when boys refused to wrestle her growing up or when she lost in the trials for the 2012 London Olympics, which she seemed certain to make. So she couldn't give up one last chance at another gold medal this time, no matter the risk of opponents hitting her in the head.”
“She's a fighter,” Steiner told the Post.
“Maroulis had been recovering from a thumb injury that kept her from lifting weights before leaving for India early in 2018,” the Post reported, adding that “looking back, she wonders if that left her neck muscles weaker. It's the only explanation she has for why a seemingly benign hit from her opponent's palm just above the bridge of her nose left her disoriented, sleeping for most of the next four days.”
“She kept telling the doctors in India, as well as the ones she saw by video conference in the United States, `something's not right,'” the Post reported, noting that “they told her to rest, and yet she couldn't rest.”
“It wasn't until she finally got back to the United States and saw a doctor in New York, where she was living, that someone told her she had a concussion,” the Post reported, noting that “Maroulis knew little about concussions, having only suffered one — in 2015,” but “this time was different.”
“She had to wear special prism glasses and noise-canceling headphones and spent most of her days indoors, slowly venturing out for a few minutes every few days until she began to get better,” the Post reported, adding that during a training session with a male wrestling coach, “wrestling men was a regular part of her training, but ever since Rio she noticed men becoming more aggressive in their sessions, trying to prove they were tougher than the gold medalist,” and “the man began smacking her on the head as they wrestled.”
Maroulis “knows he knew about her injury, because halfway through their session he started talking about concussions,” the Post reported.
“I was dumbfounded,” Maroulis told the Post, noting that “the next day, she woke up with vertigo.”
“She flew to Colorado, where doctors told her she had another concussion and this time her autonomic nervous system wouldn't regulate,” the Post reported, adding that “she had trouble with light… felt dizzy… things that never bothered her before made her irritable, and sometimes, at the end of more overwhelming days, she heard voices.”
“Everything was this perfect storm culminating with all this stuff that hadn't been dealt with,” Maroulis told the Post, adding that “I felt like a hamster on a hamster wheel, like I was going crazy a little bit.”
“She tried to work out with a strength coach she knew, but every time she put her head on the bench to lift weights, she would cry uncontrollably,” the Post reported, noting that “one of the strength coach's assistants, a former soldier, suggested she might have PTSD.”
Terrified at the hospital, “she describes the experience as being `straight-up institutionalized,'” the Post reported, adding that “she needed out, so she called her father from a phone at the nurses' station and in Greek asked him to tell the doctors to let her go back to Colorado… The next day he did.”
Maroulis “started training for the upcoming world championships, never telling anyone with the team about the PTSD or the hospital in Utah,” the Post reported, noting that “she went to worlds, mentally lost, her body tense, unsure about wrestling” and “in her first match, she tore her rotator cuff completely from her shoulder.”
“That July, Maroulis felt well enough to start training for wrestling again,” the Post reported, adding that “a light wrestling session” resulted in another concussion.
While working to get in shape, she helped coach the U.S. women's Junior Olympic
“I just remember waking up and being like, `I just want to lay in bed all day and just pray that I just make it to tomorrow and that at some point this gets normal,' ” she told the Post, noting that “there was no quality of life like it. Like, I couldn't drive. It was so miserable.”
After going home for Christmas in December, “she had told herself she was done with wrestling, but she started visiting a local gym mostly to say hello” and “eventually she did some light workouts, only to have panic and anxiety attacks,” the Post reported, noting that “she started to wonder if her reactions weren't related to her last concussion but more to her PTSD.”
“Her therapists had said one of the therapies for PTSD is to talk about the cause until the response lessens,” the Post reported, adding that “she decided to try the technique with wrestling,” and “increased the workouts to three days per week, retreating home to bed afterward, but she would also talk about the experience with her therapist.”
“Each week her panic decreased and she felt better,” the Post reported, noting that “she realized that, instead of running away from wrestling, she needed to confront it.”
In February 2020, Maroulis participated in a pre-trials tournament, and “the first woman she wrestled immediately clubbed her head,” the Post reported, adding that “Maroulis knew the blows were intentional and her opponent was aware of her concussions, but a strange thing happened. The tactic didn't bother her.”
“It was such confirmation that I had done the work, the mental, emotional and spiritual work and it was like: `You're healed,' ” she told the Post.
Following the cancellation of the Olympic trials due to the coronavirus pandemic, Maroulis “stayed with her parents and worked with a local coach,” feeling “stronger, healthier and happier, more like her old self,” the Post reported, adding that “at this April's rescheduled trials, Maroulis had a bye into the final, which she won with a pin in the third round.”
“It was kind of like a PTSD release,” she told the Post, “I just felt like I was still just purging stuff from the past, and it was like: `Wow, I can't believe this happened. What a gift.' ”
In a phone interview with the Post, John Maroulis said that “every night he prays for his daughter… Not to win the Olympics again, but just to be healthy” and “hopes after Tokyo she will quit wrestling for good,” adding that he “jokingly tells her she should `find a nice Greek boy and settle down.'”
“The first time around [in Rio] I was gung ho, but right now, after seeing Helen suffer for three years, my heart is not into it,” he told the Post.
Maroulis' parents asked her repeatedly why she continued when she could have stopped after the experience in India, but Maroulis told the Post, “for 20 years, it's been like, `I'm like not backing down,' and if you're like, `Oh, I'm tired, this hurts,' or whatever — well, a guy can do that, but when you do it, it's like, `You don't belong here; you don't belong in this sport.' So I just think it was just so deeply ingrained in me that . . . I was always going to go hard until I was told that was it.”
“Maroulis knows she is taking a risk in talking about her concussions,” the Post reported, noting that “her opponents are listening,” and “in a recent tournament in Poland, she faced a wrestler whose only approach was to hit her head repeatedly.”
Maroulis refuses to be silent, and “remembers crying at one particularly low point in the office of a doctor at the U.S. performance center, saying she must be the worst case the doctor had ever seen, only to have the doctor say she would be surprised how many athletes come in with mental health issues.”
“And all Maroulis could think was: `Why don't people talk about this?'” the Post reported, adding that “she wants to start” and “hopes other athletes will listen.”
At the Tokyo Olympics, Maroulis reached the semi-finals in the women's freestyle 57kg, but lost to Japan's Risako Kawai in a close match 2-1. She still has the opportunity to bring home a medal as she wrestles for the bronze on August 5.