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-ever gold medal for a United States women’s 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 win 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?” she said. “Like, oh my gosh!’”
Yoshida was trying to become the second woman to ever 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 years, but she had been less dominant in recent tournaments, and Maroulis was on a two-year win streak of her own.
“It’s an honor to wrestle Yoshida,” Maroulis said. “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 after the match 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, Valentin Kalika, played a key role in the victory. But even with the game plan in place, she became a bit tense before the start.
“I’m like, 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,’” Maroulis said.
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.”
A dream matchup in the women’s wrestling 75 kilogram freestyle category was ruined when the United States’ Adeline Gray and Brazil’s Aline da Silva Ferreira both lost in the quarterfinals.
Gray, the heavily favored three-time world champion, lost to Vasilisa Marzaliuk of Belarus 3-1 on Thursday. Marzaliuk finished fifth at the 2012 Olympics in the 72 kilogram class, and was third in the 2015 World Championships at 75 kilograms.
Brazil’s crowd was fired up for da Silva Ferreira, a silver medalist from the 2014 World Championships, but she fell behind early and lost to Russia’s Ekaterina Bukina 4-3.
Bukina won the bronze medal by scoring in the final seconds of a 5-3 win over Cameroon’s Annabel Laure Ali. Marzaliuk lost to Fengliu Zhang in the bronze medal match.
In the 75 kilogram gold-medal match, Canada’s Erica Wiebe defeated Kazakhstan’s Guzel Manyurova 6-0.
Japan’s Risako Kawai defeated Belarus’ Maryia Mamashuk 3-0 for the 63 kilogram gold.
“I wanted a gold medal, but today I got the silver and that’s OK with me,” Mamashuk said. “This is my first Olympic Games and I’m very happy about it and the medal.”