- - 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.

“She wrestled this guy who was the returning outstanding wrestler at the tournament,” Phelps said. “He was a senior going up against a freshman girl. There were three matches going on at the same time, but as those matches ended, her match ended up going into overtime. So everyone’s watching Helen’s match. And she beat this monster. She was this little girl going against this little man, and the stands are going crazy.”

Maroulis lost in the semifinals and had to face her adversary for third place. And the match went into overtime, again.

“She ends up taking him down and pinning him, and the place erupts,” Phelps said. “They ended up giving her the outstanding wrestler, which is pretty uncommon for a third-place finish.”

Terry Steiner, the Team USA women’s wrestling coach, said he and his colleagues started hearing about Maroulis before they saw her in person.

“From cadet nationals to junior nationals, she was one of those people who started performing,” Steiner said. “If they start performing, we start paying attention. Once they’re in the top three of our junior pool, we try to wrap our arms around them.”

While Maroulis put her stamp on the Maryland high school scene with two dramatic overtime wins as a freshman, it was a loss that catapulted her to her current level.

“I think losing last year (July 2011) in the finals of the junior world championships, a match she fully expected to win, put her in a different place in a good way,” Steiner said about a loss to Kanako Murata of Japan. “She just had a flat match in the finals, there’s no other way around it. If they wrestled 10 times, Helen would win nine. So it stung, and that’s driving her quite a bit. She came home with a real sense of urgency, and she hasn’t let up.”

Since then, Maroulis finished fifth in the senior world championship and either first or second in four other events, including a victory in the Pan American Championship on Feb. 25.

Ahead of the April trials, Maroulis will be with the national team on a training trip to China or back in Colorado Springs plugging away. Both coach and athlete say the Olympics we see on TV — with its laurel wreaths and gold medals — couldn’t be more different than the brutal path to get there. We don’t see the repetitive sessions of practice, weightllifting, cardiovascular training, visits to physical therapists and chiropractors.

“It’s pretty much eat, wrestle, sleep,” Maroulis said. “I don’t have a car, so I don’t get off campus much. But we go to yoga a lot on Sundays.”

The grind can be mentally draining, and Maroulis said she’s looking forward to some upcoming sessions with a sports psychologist.

“Since the end of 2010, the past year-and-a-half, I’ve had to commit to do all the little things that matter. Everything I could think of: changing my diet, getting more sleep,” Maroulis said, ticking off a list. “And it’s worked for me. And every sport at this level is really mental.

“I can overthink and get overwhelmed. You sacrifice everything to make this team. The closer it comes up, I’m getting excited and nervous at the same time.”

Paula usually follows the matches via webcast, but since it’s a trials event and owned by NBC, it will not be streamed live. NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) will air the finals early the following week, so mom will have to stay updated by friends at the event. Or perhaps get the results from Helen.

“You’re making me nervous just thinking about it,” she said. “But if she makes it, I will cry like a baby.”

Steiner said the trials are designed to send the most deserving wrestler to London, and Maroulis has earned that honor based on her recent success. But even if she’s upset, there is a bright future.

“She’s a rising star — this is just beginning for Helen. She hasn’t made the Olympic team, yet. But I’m pretty sure she’ll have more opportunities; She’s very young. She has at least one more, if not two or three more cycles,” Steiner said. “Who knows at what point it becomes not important for her? But as long as she stays focused, she’s going to have opportunities to win a lot of championships.”

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