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Helen Maroulis wins Team USA's first-ever gold medal in women's wrestling

Helen Maroulis wins gold at the Rio Olympics
Jeffrey Swinger/USA TODAY Sports

Helen Maroulis wins USA's first gold medal in women's wrestling

Maroulis defeated wrestling's most decorated athlete to win 53kg gold

It took some time, but the United States now has a gold medalist in women's wrestling.

And to earn it, Helen Maroulis had to beat a woman who knows a thing or two about gold medals: Japan's Saori Yoshida, a 13-time world champion and three-time reigning Olympic champion.

It was a gold medal showdown that the wrestling world had been looking forward to for a long time. Maroulis, the reigning world champion at 55kg, versus Yoshida, the reigning world champion at 53kg.

The first period ended with Yoshida leading 1-0 after Maroulis failed to convert when put on the 30-second shot clock. The American came out strong in the second period though, getting two takedowns to earn a 4-1 victory on points.

And with that, Maroulis added "Olympic champion" to her résumé.

Ever since last year's world championships, Maroulis and Yoshida looked to be on a collision course. The 55kg division that Maroulis won her world title in is not an Olympic weight class, meaning she had to decide whether to go up to Kaori Icho's 58kg division or down to Yoshida's 53kg division.

Maroulis opted to go down, and while that's only a four to five pound difference, it created a challenge because she was already cutting weight to get down to 55kg for competitions. Being required to cut a few extra pounds meant that she had to develop entirely new strength-training and nutrition plans, which included a much stricter diet, in order to change the composition of her body without unnecessarily sacrificing strength.

Meanwhile, Yoshida was on a quest to make history of her own. The Japanese superstar, who had previously only lost two matches over the last 14 years, was attempting to become the second wrestler to ever earn four gold medals, less than 24 hours after Icho, her teammate, became the first.

Yoshida, who started off in the Round of 16, was never truly challenged en route to the gold medal match. She won her first three bouts by a combined score of 19-0, extending her streak of Olympic shutouts to nine straight matches. Before her bout with Maroulis, Yoshida had not given up a single point to an opponent at the Olympics since the 2008 quarterfinals.

The competition draw landed Maroulis in the qualification round, meaning she had to wrestle one additional match before the Round of 16.  She won her first two matches easily, with victories by technical fall, but then faced a stiff challenge from North Korea's Jong Myong-Suk in the quarterfinals. Maroulis needed several late scores to overcome a 4-1 deficit and move into the semifinals, where she then pinned world No. 2 Sofia Mattsson of Sweden to advance onward.

A win in the final over Yoshida, who happens to be the world's most decorated wrestler, secured the first-ever gold medal for the U.S. in women's wrestling. Women's divisions were added to the Olympic program in 2004, and Japanese wrestlers like Yoshida and Icho have dominated Olympic podiums in the years since.

Yoshida's legendary status was not lost on Maroulis.

"I've been dreaming about wrestling Saori for so long," Maroulis said afterward. "She's a hero. She's the most decorated wrestler in the sport. It's such an honor to wrestle her."

For Yoshida, one of the sport's most impressive streaks has come to an end. Dating all the way back to 2002, she had won a major global title (either Olympic or world) for 14 consecutive years. She will finish 2016 with an Olympic silver medal, but not the championship she had hoped for.

"I should have attacked sooner and faster, but [Maroulis] was stronger than me," Yoshida said in explaining her loss.

With the next Olympics in 2020 being held in Tokyo, it's plausible that Yoshida could continue with the sport, but the 33-year-old said that she is still undecided at this time.

The bronze medals in the 53kg division were won by Mattsson, who pinned her medal-round opponent in under 30 seconds, and Azerbaijan's Natalya Sinishin.

While Maroulis was pegged as a potential gold medalist, she wasn't even the biggest favorite on the U.S. team Thursday. That honor belonged to three-time world champion Adeline Gray, who was entrenched as a heavy favorite in the 75kg division entering the day. But in one of the day's biggest upsets, Gray was surprisingly defeated in the quarterfinals by Vasilisa Marzaliuk of Belarus.

The third American wrestler in action, Elena Pirozhkova, nearly provided a second medal for Team USA. The 2012 Olympian upset the division's reigning world champion, Soronzonbold Battsetseg of Mongolia, by a score of 3-2 to move into the 63kg semifinals. Although she dropped her next match, Pirozhkova got the chance to fight in a bronze medal bout. Her medal hopes ended when she was pinned after four minutes by Yekaterina Larionova of Kazakhstan.

The gold medal in the 63kg division went to Risako Kawai, who became the fourth member of Japan's vaunted women's wrestling team to win an Olympic title in Rio.

In the 75kg weight class, Canada's Erica Wiebe emerged as the champion.

53kg women's freestyle results

Yoshida (JPN) wins 9-0 vs. Sambou (SEN)
Arguello (VEN) wins 6-3 vs. Prevolaraki (GRE)
Mattsson (SWE) wins 10-3 vs. Krawcyz (POL)
Maroulis (USA) wins 7-4 vs. Jong (PRK)

Yoshida (JPN) wins 6-0 vs. Arguello (VEN)
Maroulis (USA) wins by fall (5:24) vs. Mattsson (SWE)

Repechage matches
Rd. 1: Zhong (CHN) wins by tech fall 10-0 vs. Khavaldzhy (UKR)
Rd. 2: Sinishin (AZE) wins 4-0 vs. Sambou (SEN)
Rd. 2: Zhong (CHN) wins on criteria 5-5 vs. Jong (PRK)

Bronze medal matches
Sinishin (AZE) wins 2-1 vs. Arguello (VEN)
Matsson (SWE) wins by fall (0:29) vs. Zhong (CHN)

Gold medal match
Maroulis (USA) wins 4-1 vs. Yoshida (JPN)

63kg women's freestyle results

Pirozhkova (USA) wins 3-2 vs. Soronzonbold (MGL)
Mamashuk (BLR) wins 7-2 vs. Johansson (SWE)
Kawai (JPN) wins 8-2 vs. Grigorjeva (LAT)
Trazhukova (RUS) wins 5-4 vs. Xu (CHN)

Mamashuk (BLR) wins 3-2 vs. Pirozhkova (USA)
Kawai (JPN) wins by tech fall 10-0 vs. Trazhukova (RUS)

Repechage matches
Rd. 2: Larionova (KAZ) wins by fall (3:58) vs. Johansson (SWE)
Rd. 2: Michalik (POL) wins 5-2 vs. Grigorjeva (LAT)

Bronze medal matches
Larionova (KAZ) wins by fall (3:57) vs. Pirozhkova (USA)
Michalik (POL) wins 6-3 vs. Trazhukova (RUS)

Gold medal match
Kawai (JPN) wins 6-0 vs. Mamashuk (BLR)

75kg women's freestyle results

Marzaliuk (BLR) wins 4-1 vs. Gray (USA)
Wiebe (CAN) wins 5-2 vs. Zhang (CHN)
Manyurova (KAZ) wins 8-6 vs. Ali (CMR)
Bukina (RUS) wins 4-3 vs. Ferreira (BRA)

Wiebe (CAN) wins 3-0 vs. Marzaliuk (BLR)
Manyurova (KAZ) wins by fall (5:52) vs. Bukina (RUS)

Repechage matches
Rd. 2: Nemeth (HUN) vs. Ali (CMR)
Rd. 2: Selmaier (GER) vs. Zhang (CHN)

Bronze medal matches
Zhang (CHN) wins 8-4 vs. Marzaliuk (BLR)
Bukina (RUS) wins 5-3 vs. Ali (CMR)

Gold medal match
Wiebe (CAN) wins 6-0 vs. Manyurova (KAZ)

Zaccardi: Helen Maroulis' takedown of a legend has been years in the making

Helen Maroulis' victory against three-time Olympic champion Saori Yoshida was the culmination of a plan that started long ago

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