- - Monday, March 5, 2012

Blame it on Big Tony.

While she didn’t say it in exactly those words, Rockville resident Paula Maroulis might as well have.

That’s how her daughter, Helen, the middle child of three siblings, got her start in wrestling more than a decade ago.

If it hadn’t been for Tony, then 6 years old, being too big for all the other kids in his wrestling club, Helen, 20, and now a serious contender to make the London Olympics at 122 pounds/55 kg, might never have taken up the sport. Older by two years, she was the only child in the room big enough to match up with Tony.

“Just as a favor to her brother, I asked if she would practice,” Paula said. “It wasn’t something we would have done otherwise. I had visions of Helen doing all sorts of girly things — she did gymnastics, and dance class, and art camp and she just sort of fell into wrestling.”

While that was the genesis of her career, Helen Maroulis, who attended Magruder High School in Rockville through 11th grade, is on the verge of reaching her career’s apex. By winning the national championship in December, she earned a bye into the April 21 best-of-three finals at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Iowa City, Iowa.

“Getting that was a huge relief,” Maroulis said. “It’s a good advantage to have.”

But acquiring favored-wrestler status didn’t come easily. Just in the past four years, Maroulis has lived in four different cities: finishing her junior year at Magruder, where she placed in the Maryland state championship meet at 112 pounds; moving to Marquette, Mich., for an Olympic training program for high school students; starting college at Missouri Baptist in St. Louis; transferring to Simon Fraser University near Vancouver, British Columbia, for her second year of college; and last fall, moving into the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., for her London push.

But before that, she was just one of Kevin Phelps‘ wrestlers, albeit his greatest success story.

“She’s the standout, and she’s in pretty good company,” the former Magruder wrestling coach said. “I had teammates in college that ended up being All-Americans. I’ve coached seven or eight state champs. She just makes you realize how good she is when you stack her up against everyone else.”

Phelps, 39, is not currently coaching. But when he returns to the mat, he’ll probably use some of his Helen Maroulis stories to motivate his wrestlers.

“We kind of knew she was coming,” Phelps said of Maroulis‘ success as a club wrestler during her middle school years. “It wasn’t a question of whether she was going to be on the team or if she was going to start. It was, ‘How well is she going to fare against the top-tier kids?’ “

Some coaches saw her as a novelty and didn’t know what to expect when she went up against boys.

“But she just destroyed them,” Phelps said.

Maroulis exceeded 30 wins in her first year and finished her Magruder career with 99 victories. Her most memorable accomplishment came at the Hub Cup, a tournament in North Hagerstown, Md., where she was voted the most outstanding wrestler without winning her weight class.

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