Top Stories of the Decade

Helen Maroulis Makes History, Upends Saori Yoshida at Rio 2016

By Ken Marantz

CORSIER-SUR-VEVEY, Switzerland (December 23) -- Helen MAROULIS (USA) went into the 53kg final at the Rio 2016 Olympics knowing about as much as one could about her opponent. Granted, it wasn't hard to be familiar with Saori YOSHIDA (JPN), given that with three Olympic and 13 world golds to her name, she was already among the most famous wrestlers on the planet. And the American had some first-hand knowledge, having lost to Yoshida by fall in two previous meetings.

But Maroulis knew that if she wanted to fulfill her dream of becoming the first American woman to win an Olympic wrestling gold, the path had to go through Yoshida, so she did extra homework on the superstar, including having videos interviews translated so she could better understand what made her tick.

"I knew the match would be more mental than anything else, because she's really smart," Maroulis said in a FloWrestling documentary after the match. "I don't think she likes when people attack her, and I don't think she's wrestled someone in over a decade who believed they could beat her, and I'm like, I have to show her that."

Maroulis, 24 at the time, took her own advice and took the fight to the 34-year-old Yoshida, and it paid off with one of the biggest upsets of the Olympic wrestling tournament. Maroulis scored a pair of second-period takedowns in a dramatic 4-1 victory before a raucous crowd at Rio's Carioca Arena.

For Maroulis, it was redemption for having failed to make the U.S. team four years earlier. For Yoshida--and Japan as a whole--it was a heartbreaking defeat that prevented her from matching the previous day achievement of compatriot Kaori ICHO (JPN), who became the first woman in any sport in Olympic history to win four consecutive Olympic golds.

In the first period, Yoshida got in deep on a single-leg, but Maroulis prevented her from finishing it off. A short time later, Yoshida received a point with Maroulis on the activity clock, and the period ended with Yoshida leading 1-0.

Early in the second period, Yoshida tried to shrug past Maroulis. Maroulis slipped to the side and as she started going behind, Yoshida reached back for a headlock, but Maroulis pulled her head out and gained control as the two tumbled to the mat for a 2-1 lead. With just over a minute left, Maroulis crossed over for an inner thigh hold and forced out Yoshida for what was originally ruled a 1-point stepout, but was revised to a 2-point takedown.

In the final 20 seconds, Yoshida again got in on a single, but just as she did earlier, Maroulis applied a whizzer and forced a non-scoring stalemate. When the buzzer sounded, both wrestlers flopped to the mat in tears, obviously experiencing vastly different emotions.

As a bewildered Maroulis finally got to her feet, her coach Valentin Kalika ran onto the mat and warmly embraced her. Her success can be directly linked to coming under the tutelage of the Russian.  The two had worked together before he invited her to a training camp in 2014 in the Russian wrestling hotbed of Dagestan.

A suicide bombing in the volatile region had led USA Wrestling to advise her against taking the trip, and her father also strongly opposed. But the desire to become an Olympic gold won out and she went, although she did take the extreme precaution of changing out of her USA warmup jacket during a stopover at Moscow airport.

Kalika was awed by such dedication. "Man, this girl came to die [just] to win Olympics. Not many men would do that. She became my hero."

And, during the three-week camp -- which concluded without incident --- he officially became her coach. The results were tangible, as she won the world title in 2015 at 55kg, adding to her silver from 2012 and bronze in 2014. (She would add another gold in 2017.) Her biggest decision was which weight class to make her Rio challenge and, consulting a nutritionist and others, made the choice to go down to 53kg.

That put her on a collision course with Yoshida, who was on a mission of her own. Aside from the historic significance of a fourth Olympic gold, Yoshida wanted to dedicate the victory to her father, who had died suddenly at 61 five months before the Rio Games. Eikatsu YOSHIDA, a former national champion, had been a coach and confidante since she started the sport at age 3 (that's him on her shoulders during her victory lap at the London 2012 Olympics).

Her father taught her the attacking style that led to her unrivaled success, and she felt she had sullied his memory by failing to score a takedown in the Rio final. As she wept uncontrollably in her mother's arms after the match, she could be heard saying, "Father is angry with me." The tears continued on the medal podium, and in interviews on Japanese TV.

The loss to Maroulis would be Yoshida's only one in her career to a non-Japanese in an individual tournament, as her two other defeats came at World Cups. It would also be her last match, as she announced her retirement in January this year.

Top Stories of the Decade

Wrestling Fights its Way Back onto Olympic Programme

By Tim Foley

United World Wrestling President Nenad Lalovic speaks at the 125th IOC Session (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

CORSIER-SUR-VEVEY, Switzerland (January 3) – The news spread quickly. On the morning of February 12, 2013, the International Olympic Committee Executive Board voted that wrestling be eliminated from the Olympic Programme. The 2016 Rio Olympic Games would be the sport’s last as a member of the Olympic family.

By early afternoon stories had run on every major international wire and sports website informing the worldwide wrestling community of the sport’s unlikely elimination from the Olympic Games. With the information came an immediate and worldwide mobilization effort aimed at earning back wrestling’s position on the Olympic programme.

Reacting to the news, the FILA bureau met in Thailand to decide next steps. It was apparent that there had been missed signs and opportunities for organizational improvement and the bureau moved quickly to elect a new president, ultimately choosing Serbian businessman Nenad Lalovic. Two months later Lalovic was elected interim president during an extraordinary Congress in Moscow and set the tone of hard work and cooperation that would ultimately prove successful in helping the sport recapture its spot in the Olympic Games.

“What goes on in this room today and the days that follow will determine if we are an Olympic sport after 2016. We have been given a strong message by the IOC.  How we answer that message will determine if our future includes the Olympic Games.  We need to convince the IOC that we will listen to them.  We are strong enough to change,” said Lalovic.

By June there were promotional events being held around the globe. In Japan a petition was signed with more than 1 million signatures. The United States and Russia raised millions of dollars to ensure additional promotion of values, consultation for a reshaping of the sport, and the creation of marketing and media departments.

In the midst of the upheaval the wrestling community had been given an opportunity. Shortly after the 125th IOC Session in September 2013 -- where members would vote to eliminate wrestling -- there would be a second vote allowing a new sport to earn its place on the programme. Wrestling was eligible for that slot, which allowed Lalovic and the wrestling community to focus its campaign on earning enough votes to win back the sport’s position in the Olympic Games.

The IOC has requests and Lalovic -- along with newly inspired cadre of wrestling leaders -- made the changes required to comply with good governance. One of the most pressing requests was that an effort be made for greater gender equity. Wrestling answered by expanding women’s wrestling to six weight categories to match with both Greco-Roman and men’s freestyle.

Competition rules were deemed too complicated for fans to follow so a new set was developed which simplified and focused action.

Women needed more representation in leadership positions. The referee body was to be separated from bureau control. Anti-doping education and enforcement were increased, and sport presentation was professionalized. As overhauls go, the renovation for wrestling would need to be complete.

On September 8, 2013 the 125th IOC Session took account of wrestling’s myriad initiatives and improvements and voted on whether or not to allow the sport back on to the programme for 2020 and beyond.

Wrestling – who faced competing bids from Squash and Baseball/Softball -- received 49 votes in the first ballot, which was enough to be awarded its position back in the Olympic Games.

"Today is the most important day in the 2,000-year history of our sport," Lalovic told the media in 2013. "We feel the weight of that history. Remaining on the Olympic programme is crucial to wrestling's survival."

From left to right: Jim Scherr, Daniel Igali, Lise Legrand, Carol Huynh and Nenad Lalovic were instrumental in getting wrestling back on the Olympic Programme (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

With the vote wrestling returned to the Olympics, but the energy -- the drive the change --wasn’t to wane.

"With this vote, you have shown that the steps we have taken to improve our sport have made a difference,” Lalovic said in addressing media after the 2013 vote. "I assure each of you that our modernization will not stop now. We will continue to strive to be the best partner to the Olympic movement that we can be."

Since 2013 the sport has continued to improve, develop, and grow. From a modernized development department to the inclusion of more women in leadership positions, and the signing of partnership, sponsor, TV and streaming deals –progress and innovation are at the center of the sport’s future.

FILA is now ‘United World Wrestling’ an organization with fresh branding and worldwide marketing initiatives. Gone are the yellow mats, replaced with eye-friendly deep blue with orange accents. The new rules are still creating some of the most entertaining sporting moments in the world, and more women have become top-of-the-fold superstars both inside the wrestling community and in the wider sports media.

United World Wrestling President Nenad Lalovic was elected to the same IOC executive board that had voted to eliminate the sport only five years before

President Lalovic has increased participation United World Wrestling’s cooperation with the IOC and was added as a member in 2015. In 2018 he was elected to the same IOC executive board that had voted to eliminate the sport only five years before.

“We can never forget the mistakes of our past,” said Lalovic. “But at the end of the decade it’s impossible to not feel optimistic. Our sport is the strongest it’s ever been, and we are excited for the 20’s so we can showcase our wrestlers in Tokyo, Paris, and Los Angeles. Wrestling is now and will always be part of the Olympic programme.”