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An Olympic wrestler documents the psychological 'messiness' of returning after a concussion so bad that 'my personality changed' in new movie

Meredith Cash   

An Olympic wrestler documents the psychological 'messiness' of returning after a concussion so bad that 'my personality changed' in new movie
  • In 2016, Helen Maroulis won the first Olympic gold medal in US women's freestyle wrestling history.
  • Two years after, she suffered a brain injury that left her "so concussed, my personality changed."

Helen Maroulis was on top of the world.

The American wrestler won the first-ever gold medal in US women's freestyle wrestling history at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The unprecedented feat made the Rockville, Maryland, native the darling of the wrestling world and the favorite to do it all again four years later.

But in 2018 — just two years before she was expected to defend her medal — Maroulis suffered a head injury while competing professionally in India. What she initially thought was just a broken nose and the lingering effects of jet lag was actually a traumatic brain injury that left her "so concussed, my personality changed."

And at first, somewhat unbelievably to the doctors who later treated her, she wrestled through it.

"You have to understand that I wired myself from a young age to push through everything and never show weakness so that I could prove to all the men and the people in this sport that I deserve to be here, that I could do it," Maroulis told Insider. "And so the same mindset that helped me to win a gold medal also now cost me my health a little bit.

"And the new lesson was like, you can't keep doing this this way," she added. "You have to actually learn how to listen to your body and like, be balanced and take care of yourself."

What came next was a brilliantly gritty comeback story seemingly made for the big screen; Maroulis mounts a spectacular recovery, punches her ticket to the Tokyo Olympics, and wins a bronze medal so meaningful that it rivals her gold.

And so director Dylan Mulick — with the help of Chris Pratt and Religion of Sports — started filming her journey back to wrestling glory to share with the masses. Now, some five years after Maroulis' initial injury, "Helen | Believe" is set to hit theaters across the country on Thursday for one night only.

But her path to resurgence was far from straightforward; an ongoing battle with post traumatic stress disorder, an early retirement, a pair of stints at an inpatient facility featuring a 72-hour involuntary hold for suicidal ideation, a torn ligament in her knee, a global pandemic, several training centers, and embarrassing losses on the world stage all factor prominently into her journey.

"I don't wanna pretend it's sunshine and rainbows when it's not," Maroulis told Insider. "I just want young athletes to know that I don't think there's really anyone that has it figured out. And part of getting healthy coping mechanisms or healing might mean going through some messiness in order to get there.

"I just don't want them to feel alone or like they can't come back from something," she added.

That "messiness" was part of her motivation for sharing her story in the first place. Maroulis recounted a time shortly after her PTSD diagnosis when she broke down to the sports medicine doctors at one of her training facilities.

She felt "so embarrassed" for crying and off-handedly commented that she "must be the worst case that you've ever seen of mental health in an athlete." The doctor told her she'd "be surprised how many athletes struggle with their mental health — it's alarming."

"I really looked at her and I said, 'Why aren't we talking about this?'" Maroulis recalled. "I would just love to know that I'm not alone in the struggle."

So she's talking about it. Her comeback story is not meant to solely encapsulate physical feats, mental fortitude, and a never-say-die attitude, Religion of Sports Co-Executive Producer Giselle Parets told Insider.

It's about so much more.

"Helen is showing a very different side of that whole story of like, you are a wrestler, you're a tomboy, you need to train with those guys, you need to be tough," Parets said. "She just showed everybody that you actually need to get in touch with your feminine side, with your vulnerable side, with your true sensibility to really spiritually know what's your higher calling.

"She did all that in a incredibly short period of time and still came out on the other side triumphantly," she added. "Just telling you this gives me the chills."

"Helen | Believe" hits 700 theaters nationwide Thursday night, and fans can buy tickets for the movie on the Fathom Events website.

Check out the film's official trailer below:




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