We have a conversation with FirstCov'er Kevin Black who had the opportunity to be part of coaching Helen Maroulis to the first U.S. women's Olympic gold medal in wrestling (yes, ever). A great story with good tips on how faith can impact an athlete's life. Congrats to Helen as well as Kevin in such a special time!
How did you meet Helen and get connected as an ongoing coaching influence with her?
I met Helen in 2008 as a part of my role with the US Women's Junior National Team. She was on the Junior World team and I had been involved with various development camps that she participated in. In 2009, she was a senior in high school and had a difficult time at a tournament and we had a conversation about her goals and where she was at that time in her life and it started a strong athlete-coach relationship.
What challenges came along over the years? How did you walk with her through those?
Every athlete will face a large number of challenges throughout their training and competitive experiences year after year. As I became more involved in her wrestling career, she became more open with me about several of her struggles, mostly concerning anxiety and self-image, and how they affected her performances on the mat. It led to some important talks about value, worth, significance, performance based acceptance, etc. We would talk about how her life is viewed by a loving God, which is much different than how the sports world views high level athletes and it inevitably led to her making a decision to "cross the line of faith." Once she understood that her meaning and value was separate from her athletic achievements, most of the setbacks were handled with that important faith perspective at the forefront. If she wasn't enough without a gold medal, she was never going to be enough with one. As my on-the-mat role changed and she found a better fit for her technique, my role of treating her as the Helen created by a loving God and not an athlete with a certain number of championships became increasingly more important.
Overall, what was a memorable experience of the Olympics (apart from Helen’s win)?
Obviously, winning a gold medal was memorable and a big piece of what made things enjoyable.
Seeing years and years of hard work and unmatched dedication and discipline pay off at the exact moment of truth was very gratifying. The opportunity of lifetime must be seized in the lifetime of the opportunity and she had to be completely focused and physically ready at the exact moment in time, and she was. That was special to see. As a coach, though, the most important part that played out for me was knowing intellectually and seeing it played out in front of me that this particular athlete, one that we care for deeply, understood that she was enough regardless of the outcome. She recited the mantra, "Christ is in me. I am enough," over and over throughout the day and was so focused on enjoying the moment that she was crippled by the outcome. When she won the gold medal, there was a great deal of excitement all around, but she was free to enjoy the payout of the hard work because her value wasn't depending on the outcome. Coaching an athlete to win a gold medal in the Olympic Games is a dream come true, but what's more than that is having the opportunity to see that athlete secure in her faith and identity without it. Truth be told, we've said for 8 years that she's enough without the gold medal, however, that was always just an idea and the "right thing to say." Now that she has that gold medal and we can measure it, she knows even more now that she's worth much more than gold.
How did your faith in Christ help you guide Helen in the midst of Olympic pressures?
My faith has been absolutely essential to our working relationship because I'm a "behind-the-scenes" person in Helen's life. If any part of me was in this for my glory, it would have been over long ago. My life's purpose is rooted in the confession in Isaiah 26:8, "yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts." All of this is to for his name and fame, not mine and not Helen's. Now, her platform is bigger than our sport has ever seen and there's a great opportunity for the world to hear more about God's love.
Anything else you would like to share in this experience?
Over the years that I've seen Helen grow as a woman of God and as an Olympic gold medalist wrestler, I have witnessed God's provisions and blessings in a way that is so much bigger than I could have even imagined God to be. As a human being, I often have doubts and questions about how God is doing His thing. My faith is shaky, for sure, and I'm so grateful that my salvation doesn't depend on my faith because "my faith is like shifting sand." Working with Helen I've seen God's faithfulness on display over and over and it has nothing to do with winning or losing. My faith in Christ grows because of His faithfulness.