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How U.S. wrestler Adeline Gray became the face of a movement

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A wrestling match typically lasts six minutes. In her final bout at U.S. Olympic Trials, Adeline Gray needed just 65 seconds.


Then the tears began to flow.


The three-time world champion officially punched her ticket to the Rio Games by defeating Victoria Anthony in a best-of-three final at Trials in April. The second match ended after little more than a minute when Gray was able to secure a victory by technical fall (wrestling's version of the "mercy rule") after successfully scoring multiple points off a maneuver called the "leg lace" – a devastating move perfected by Gray which has helped turn her into one of the most dominant figures in women's wrestling. As the reality of what she had just accomplished set in, she was immediately overcome with emotion on the mat.



Gray is now headed to her first Olympics and will be the heavy favorite to win a gold medal – potentially the first ever for the U.S. women's team – in 75kg (165 lbs) freestyle wrestling in Rio. After all, she can make it look exceedingly easy on the mat at times.


But as Gray can attest, for girls who get into wrestling, the road is rarely ever easy.


At 6 years old, the Colorado native took her first wrestling class, and it ended up being a natural fit for Gray, who was a hyper child with an overabundance of energy. Even as a toddler, she constantly caused trouble by climbing out of her crib. Eventually her parents had to start implementing rules for her – when she would clear dinner dishes, for example, Gray was only allowed to carry one item at a time into the kitchen, which required her to take more laps during the process.


She also loved contact. At home, Gray would dash around and tackle her sisters. On the soccer field, she would run over opposing players, most of whom were considerably smaller. Wrestling gave her an outlet to burn energy and impose physical force upon other kids at the same time.


All those kids she wrestled had one thing in common though: They were boys.


Women's wrestling is still very much a fledgling sport in the United States, even today. Without much of an infrastructure at the youth and developmental levels, young girls often compete alongside and against children of the opposite gender. At young ages, girls can wrestle against boys and have success, which Gray did. She had plenty of growing pains early on when she started, but by the end of that first season, Gray was consistently winning matches and even won a state tournament.



In those early days, Gray was coached by her father, George. A former high school wrestler who spent 12 years as a SWAT officer, Gray's father would go on to coach her up until high school, though he still remained involved in helping her analyze matches even after that.


"It was just really fun to have something that your dad got to teach you," Gray, the oldest of four daughters, said. "It’s something that I use to this day, those base moves that I learned as a child. I use them at an Olympic level and they have helped me win world titles."


While Gray's performance on the mat showed she rightfully belonged out there, it wasn't enough to erase the various social stigmas associated with girls in wrestling.


When she got to middle school, Gray was initially turned down from joining the school's wrestling team. After the family called the school to protest, the principal overruled the decision and allowed her to join.


At meets, Gray's parents would be approached by parents of opposing wrestlers. "We feel that's not fair for our kid to wrestle a girl, we teach our kid not to hurt girls," the parents would say. Sometimes, the parents would pull their kid from the match with Adeline and forfeit the bout.


One school's junior program took things a step further. Coaches pulled parents aside and told them it was their right to not have their child wrestle a female. As a result, kids from that team consistently forfeited matches against Gray but often wrestled other girls whom they considered easier opponents. It got bad enough that Gray's mother, Donna – who felt that the program refused to wrestle her daughter because she was capable of winning matches against them – formally raised her concerns to a number of parties, including the school's athletic director and the state, to get the treatment to stop.


"I don’t remember a lot of discrimination or bigotry towards me being on the mat," Gray said. "I know that some people had issues with it, and I think that they were just missing the bigger picture."


Opponents forfeiting matches is a common issue for young girls. Gray's fellow world champion and U.S. Olympic team member, Helen Maroulis, once won 10 straight matches by forfeit in high school.


"I understand, in high school, why a guy wouldn’t want to wrestle a girl," Maroulis said. "I understand that there’s peer pressure and there’s fear to look cool for your teammates and obviously nobody wants to lose. I’ve heard the rationale of why wrestling a girl is a lose-lose situation. But I just wish someone would’ve challenged [the guys] to just think about the bigger picture."



Gray found that the best way to counter these issues was to earn the respect of her peers. Once opponents saw what she was capable of on the mat, they began to revere her and would give it their all in future matches against her.


Even within her own wrestling rooms, Gray repeatedly had to gain her teammates' respect. Freshman year, she earned a spot on the varsity team at her high school. Then sophomore year, she transferred to a different school and had to gain favor with an entirely new room. By junior year, she was named captain of that team.


"I had an opportunity to train in a sport that I could be an Olympic champion in, and a world champion in, and dream really big for being a female," Gray said. "I’m now a professional athlete that is getting to live an amazing life, and I would have never had that opportunity without those boys stepping on the mat with me every single day and making me better.


"Those boys made me better, and I want to thank all the boys out there who stepped on the mat, and had the courage to really wrestle me, because I wouldn’t be here without them. I would not be standing as a world champion without those people who had the courage to accept women in this sport."



Now that she competes on the international level, her days of wrestling against boys are mostly behind her, other than practicing moves on her coach, Terry Steiner, or the occasional sparring session with local high school kids.


That doesn't mean there haven't still been impediments.


When women's wrestling was officially added to the Olympic program in 2004, it was a boon to Gray and other female wrestlers around the world.


"I know that I all of a sudden had this idea that I could accomplish something so much greater once there was women's wrestling put into the Olympics," Gray said. "There were just so many opportunities that truly opened up for me."


The sport initially included just four Olympic weight classes for women. By comparison, men's freestyle and men's Greco-Roman wrestling both had seven weight classes each. This left Gray in a tough position for 2012, when her normal 67kg (148 lbs) division was not on the Olympic program. In order to attempt to make the Olympic team, she could either go up to 72kg (159 lbs) or lean out to 63kg (139 lbs).


Feeling that it gave her the best shot at making the team, Gray opted to go down in weight, a decision that required her to drop about 30 pounds from her natural weight before Olympic Trials that year. After working her way through a grueling bracket at Trials, an exhausted Gray was ultimately defeated by Elena Pirozhkova in a best-of-three final.


Though Gray was able to go to the London Olympics, it was only as an alternate and a training partner. It was there that she got a taste of what it was like to be "number two." She was constantly denied the same benefits that were given to Olympians and would often call her parents and vent out of frustration. Gray even had to purchase tickets with her own money to attend the wrestling competition she was there to support.



The experience would give her the drive that would fuel her Olympic run over the next four years.


"Being an alternate at the Olympics is a very tough position to be in, especially when you’re used to winning," Gray recalled. "I didn’t get the chance to go out there and show my best stuff. So I think it means even more, headed into Rio, to understand that I get the opportunity to step on that mat and prove that I am the best in the world for Team USA."


The last quadrennial leading up to Rio has been a dominant one for Gray. She has not lost a match since the final round of the Golden Grand Prix in July 2014. Her winning streak currently sits at 38 consecutive matches and will span more than two full years by the time she steps on the mat in Rio.


Gender equality has since improved at the Olympic level, as 2016 will be the first year that women's wrestling will have six weight classes, equal to both men's freestyle and men's Greco-Roman. This time around, Gray's current 75kg weight class is included, which allowed her to make the Olympic team without too much trouble.



But still, Gray hears all the stereotypes: You're too pretty to wrestle. You're too much of a "girly girl" to be in sports. Maybe you should take up tennis or dancing instead.


It's that kind of talk which has led her to become an advocate for women in sports. After Gray won a junior world title in 2008, her father began to notice a shift.


"I think she started thinking how to say things and talking," he said. "She's very articulate, she knows what she wants to say and how to say it, and it comes out easily. When you have a passion for something and when you talk about it, you can just see that enthusiasm."


Gray's mother credits Steiner, the women's national team coach, with playing a key role by realizing the potential for Gray to bring the sport to a higher level through her advocacy.


In a way, Gray has positioned herself to become the face of women's wrestling. From taking the microphone at a wrestling exhibition in Times Square to encourage young girls in attendance to take up wrestling, to numerous media interviews in the months leading up to the Rio Games, to a recent appearance in ESPN the Magazine's "Body Issue," Gray has taken the mantle on the subject. She frequently uses her platform to extoll the virtues of women's wrestling and encourage men and women around the world to reexamine the ideas of what it means to be feminine.


"Girls are allowed to wrestle, and girls are allowed to be Olympic gold medalists and world champions in wrestling, and that is powerful," Gray said. "It can be beautiful at the same time."



Just talking about the subject isn't good enough for Gray though. The U.S. has yet to win an Olympic gold medal in women's wrestling, and she could become the first to ever do so. Gray knows winning gold in Rio would go a long way toward bringing her sport into the mainstream consciousness, and she hopes that it might spark a revolution of sorts, with more girls joining the sport and more leagues putting resources into creating women's divisions.


"Women’s wrestling has now been in the Olympics long enough that Team USA should have an Olympic gold medal," Gray said. "I’m here to change that. It’s so important for our girls. To have young girls be able to look up, that one day they could go and win an Olympic title is huge."



Never one short on confidence, Gray – who has adopted the motto "Gray to Gold" for her Olympic run – can already picture the medal ceremony in her mind.


"I can feel the weight on my neck. I can feel that medal resting on my stomach. I can feel the flowers in my hair. I just know what that moment is going to be like," she said.


"Right now I could smell that whole arena with me and my musty wrestling singlet and that gold medal just being held in my hand.


"I can’t wait to bite it, too. I’m excited."






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