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Rio update: Marquette's Maroulis wins wrestling gold

The Detroit News
Marquette's Helen Maroulis gave the United States its first freestyle wrestling women's gold medal.

Rio de Janeiro — It took a moment for Helen Maroulis’ accomplishment to sink in.

The American defeated Japan’s Saori Yoshida, 4-1, in the 53-kilogram freestyle final to win the first gold medal for a United States female wrestler and derail Yoshida’s quest for a fourth straight gold.

It evoked memories of American Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner’s victory over three-time gold medalist Aleksandr Karelin at the 2000 Olympics.

Maroulis celebrated Thursday’s victory by leaping into coach Valentin Kalika’s arms, then running around the mat in a circle and gripping the United States flag with both hands while it was draped over her back.

“At the end of it, I was like, ‘Really, I just did this?” said Maroulis, who left her home in Maryland to finish high school in Marquette, where she trained at the U.S. Olympic Education Center. “Like, oh, my gosh!’”

Yoshida was trying to become the second woman to win four Olympic gold medals in a single event across four Summer Games, and the second wrestler to win four Olympic golds. Yoshida’s teammate, Kaori Icho, accomplished the feats Wednesday by winning the 58 kilogram gold. Yoshida hadn’t lost in a major tournament in 12 years.

“It’s an honor to wrestle Yoshida,” said Maroulis, who hasn’t lost in two years. “For someone to win three gold medals and come back and risk that and accept that challenge to win a fourth — that’s another four years of work, dedication, of giving your life to the sport.”

Yoshida made no excuses when asked why she lost.

“Just that the opponent is stronger than me,” she said. “I should have attacked sooner and faster, but the opponent was stronger than me.”

Maroulis said her coach played a key role in the victory. But even with the plan in place, she became a bit tense before the start.

“I’m stepping on the mat and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t even know how this is going to get done. I don’t know. I’m just going to trust, and I just want to give my all,’” said Maroulis, who lives in Southern California.

Maroulis fell behind 1-0, but a takedown early in the second period gave her the lead for good.

“I’ve dreamed of this my whole life,” Maroulis said. “I put it on this pedestal.”

Meanwhile, a dream matchup in the women’s 75 kilogram freestyle category was ruined when American Adeline Gray and Brazil’s Aline da Silva Ferreira lost in the quarterfinals.

Gray, the heavily favored three-time world champion, lost to Belarus’ Vasilisa Marzaliuk, 3-1. Gray grew up in Denver but moved to Marquette as a high school senior to train at the U.S. Olympic Education Center.

da Silva Ferreira, a silver medalist from the 2014 World Championships, fell behind early and lost to Russia’s Ekaterina Bukina, 4-3.

In the 75kg division, Adeline Gray defeated Colombia’s Andrea Olaya, 4-0, in her first match, but lost to Belarus’ Vasilisa Marzaliuk, 4-1 in the quarterfinals.

Gray was the heavily favored three-time world champion.

Other athletes with ties to Michigan in action Thursday:

* The top-ranked American women's run for its first volleyball gold medal ended as Serbia won in five sets, 20-25, 25-17, 25-21, 16-25, 15-13, in the semifinals.

Serbia lost in four sets to the U.S. and Leland’s Alisha Glass during pool play, but kept the Americans on the ropes in the semifinals, taking a 2-1 lead.

* Saturday night's final in the men's 1,500 at Rio's Olympic Stadium will have an American flavor. But it'll have a bit of a Michigan feel, too.

All three U.S. Olympians advanced through the semifinals, led by Matt Centrowitz, who was fourth at the 2012 Olympics.

So did Ann Arbor's Nick Willis, the 34-year-old New Zealander — and former NCAA champion at Michigan — who ran another savvy race, finishing third in his semifinal heat in 3 minutes 39.96 seconds to earn an automatic berth in the 12-man final. Willis, a four-time Olympian who won a silver medal in Beijing in 2008, is trying to become the oldest 1,500 medalist in Olympic history.

Nate Brannen, also a former Michigan All-American competing for Canada, was seventh in the same heat, but grabbed the last berth in the final based on his time of 3:40.20.