Helen Maroulis has been thinking about Yoshida for two years. Maroulis, the reigning world champion from Rockville, will wrestle for a gold medal Thursday afternoon. She survived a North Korean in the quarterfinals and pinned a Swede in the semis. She wrapped her arms around her coach, Valentin Kalika, and held back tears.
In the gold medal match, Maroulis will wrestle Yoshida, a 33-year-old 13-time world champ and three-time gold medalist, widely regarded as the best female wrestler of all time. Since her career began in 1998, Yoshida has gone 255-11 and lost two international matches, most recently in 2012. Her father, Eikatsu, a Japanese wrestling champion and coach, started her wrestling at age 3. Eikatsu died in 2014. Four days later, Yoshida won the World Cup championship.
Maroulis has wrestled her twice in the past. Yoshida pinned her both times. They have not wrestled in four years, changing weight classes, missing each other as Yoshida aged and Maroulis peaked. They will meet again Thursday. Maroulis has been waiting.
“We’ve been talking about beating Yoshida for the past two years,” Kalika said. “All of her training was to beat Yoshida.”
Their last meeting came in the final of the 2012 world championships, shortly after the London Games, which Maroulis barely missed qualifying for. Maroulis was only 20 then, and in losing she still earned her first major international medal. Over the next four years, her confidence ebbed and she dropped a weight class. But along the way she improved and emerged as one of the best wrestlers in the world.
“We’ve been watching Yoshida,” Kalika said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re not giving her [too much] respect. She’s got to wrestle how she’s got to wrestle. I believe, mentally, she’s ready to beat Yoshida.”
Yoshida can win her fourth gold medal, and Maroulis is in her first Olympics. But the U.S. wrestler will walk to the middle of the mat with confidence.
“Helen’s here for her first gold medal,” U.S. women’s coach Terry Steiner said. “Helen can be one of those people like Yoshida. Yoshida is a great champion. We all know that. Her record speaks for itself. I think it’s Helen’s time. We’re going to go do it tonight.
“It’s just her time right now. If you’re trying to catch up to Yoshida, everyone has a long ways to go. Helen realizes right now, she can be the best person on that mat. That’s what we’re going to focus on.”
Her path to the final revealed Maroulis’s dominance and resilience. Maroulis blazed into the quarterfinals with two wins by technical fall – “great superiority,” as they called it in Carioca Arena 2 – and by a combined score of 21-1.
In her third match, though, Maroulis encountered Myong Suk Jong of North Korea, an unknown opponent from a country that often produces Olympic threats. Maroulis fell behind, 2-1, after the first of two periods. Having dominated the 53-kg class for a year, Maroulis was in unfamiliar territory and “freaking out,” Kalika said.
“You just got to believe,” Kalika told her. “It could be 5 minutes, 55 seconds when you’re gonna get it. But you’re gonna get it.”
Jong registered an early takedown in the second, which put Maroulis behind, 4-1. During a restart with 4:32 remaining, Maroulis still trailed by three. Kalika told her to make no adjustments, to trust her instincts.
“It’s like painting something,” Kalika said. “You can’t program her. She creates motion, and then she sees an opening, and she’s going to do whatever she sees.”
With little more than a minute left, Maroulis scored two points for a takedown. The crowd chanted, “U-S-A! U-S-A!” With 15 seconds left, Maroulis pushed Jong out, another two points, good for the lead. Jong charged at Maroulis and pushed her heels to the line, but Maroulis used Jong’s own momentum to take her down. In less than 90 seconds, Maroulis had scored six points to win, 7-4.
Having survived the quarters, Maroulis dominated Sweden’s Sofia Mattsson, expected to be Maroulis’s toughest challenger. She took her apart for five minutes before finally pinning her. She rolled off Mattsson, stayed on her knees and held her hands over her face.
Maroulis has one match left, against the best woman to ever to wrestle, the woman she has been watching for two years.
“There’s a plan I’m seeing now,” Kalika said. “I hope it’s a secret.”