Concussions left Olympic champ Helen Maroulis on ‘edge of insanity’

Olympic champion Helen Maroulis is opening up about how concussions have impacted her life. The 31-year-old recently told CNN that repeated head injuries lead…

By: Tim Bissell | 2 months ago
Concussions left Olympic champ Helen Maroulis on ‘edge of insanity’
Helen Maroulis competing in 2021. IMAGO / United World Wrestling

Olympic champion Helen Maroulis is opening up about how concussions have impacted her life. The 31-year-old recently told CNN that repeated head injuries lead to her being admitted to a psychiatric ward for suicidal thoughts.

Helen Maroulis made history at the Olympics

In 2016 Helen Maroulis became the first American woman to ever win a gold medal for freestyle wrestling at the Olympics. In addition to her gold in Rio, Maroulis also won three World Championships, a World Cup and a Pan American championship.

At the 2018 World Championships Maroulis suffered a shock first round loss. At the 2020 Olympics in 2020 Maroulis won a bronze medal, making her the first American woman to ever win two medals in Olympic freestyle wrestling.

Concussions for Maroulis racked up over the years

Helen Maroulis’ disappointing finish at the Worlds in 2018 can be attributed to a concussion she suffered months before the competition. That was the first of three known head injuries she suffered over a two year period.

Concussion is the word given to a group of symptoms that typically arise after a blow to the head. Those symptoms include, but are not limited to, loss of consciousness, mental fog, vertigo, light sensitivity, nausea and irritability.

The injury itself is known as a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI). These injuries are caused when the brain rotates within the skull. This happens when the head is forced to swivel or snap back at a high velocity. Most often this happens due to strikes to the head, but blows to the body (which cause whiplash) can also cause mTBIs.

A 2020 study showed that females might be more susceptible to mTBIs and may have worse and more prolonged concussion symptoms than males. The study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine stated that “biomechanical differences and hormonal differences” are possible factors.

Maroulis said her concussion symptoms, suffered after blows to the head that didn’t knock her out, included vertigo, dizziness and personality changes.

Marloulis also said that concussions intensified symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic-stress, issues she had dealt with prior to suffering any head injuries.

“Between 2012 and 2016, I did so much work on myself to overcome that,” she told CNN. “And I really felt like, oh, I don’t think I struggle with this anymore, and I was so proud of that. And then when I got the concussions, it felt like a lot of that flooded back.”

Concussions lead to Maroulis being hospitalized

“As an athlete, you don’t want to show any weakness,” Maroulis said when discussing how she tried to train through the pain and not let anyone know how badly she was suffering from concussions.

During a training match in 2019 Maroulis was slapped in the ear. That resulted in more concussion symptoms. After this incident she was admitted to a psych ward due to concerns she might harm herself.

“I remember feeling like I’m crazy, like I’m right on the edge of insanity,” she said of that time.

Maroulis says she doesn’t remember what happened after her admission. She was released a few days later.

After her admission Maroulis took steps to better treat her brain injuries.

“I realize that you are replaceable to everybody except yourself,” she said. “And I’m like, I cannot do this to myself anymore. I can’t ask my body to go wrestle a match just to make these people happy.”

Maroulis’ recovery included counselling and fascial counterstrain

Helen Maroulis took half a year away from competition and practise in 2019 to focus on recovery.

Her recovery program included counselling and neuropsychology. She also underwent ocular and vestibular training, biofeedback therapy and used a hyperbaric oxygen chamber.

Additionally, Maroulis used Fascial Counterstrain (FCS), a soft tissue manipulation technique, to treat her symptoms.

She was eventually given clearance to wrestle from staff at the US Olympic Training Center.

“I wanted to come back because I love [the sport] and I want to ask the most of myself and I want to heal my relationship with wrestling and enjoy this again like I did as a little kid,” said Maroulis.

“I’m one of the very lucky and blessed cases. There are so many situations where I’m just in the right place at the right time, or I met someone that works on concussions outside of the network of help that they were providing, and that person was able to help me tremendously.”

Maroulis is the subject of the documentary ‘Believe’

Helen Maroulis’ career, and struggles with concussions, are featured in the documentary Believe. The film, which is produced by Chris Pratt, was released last month.

BELIEVE featuring Helen Maroulis

Free and confidential support for individuals who are in crisis and are thinking about taking their own lives, or have loved ones who are in crisis, can be found with the following organizations.

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About the author
Tim Bissell
Tim Bissell

Tim Bissell is a writer, editor and deputy site manager for Bloody Elbow. He has covered combat sports since 2015. Tim covers news and events and has also written longform and investigative pieces. Among Tim's specialties are the intersections between crime and combat sports. Tim has also covered head trauma, concussions and CTE in great detail.

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