Wrestler Helen Maroulis Has 'Fully Healed' from 2018 Head Injury — and Is Ready for Tokyo Olympics
The countdown to the Tokyo Summer Olympics is on, and wrestler Helen Maroulis is one of the many athletes awaiting the chance to take home gold for Team USA.
The 29-year-old, who is featured in Procter & Gamble's new film Your Goodness is Your Greatness as part of its Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 campaign, made her Olympic debut at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, where she became the first-ever American to win a gold medal in women's freestyle wrestling.
Two years later, Maroulis sustained a devastating head injury at the 2018 World Wrestling Championships, which left her wrestling future (and return to the Olympics) up in the air.
But now, Maroulis exclusively tells PEOPLE, she's made a full recovery and is ready to take on the competition in Tokyo this summer.
"I'm good. I'm fully healed," says Maroulis of her injury. "And it's been really interesting. I learned a lot about the brain and honestly about the mind. As athletes, you think we know about how powerful the mind is, but until I learned about some of the neurology and the way the brain really works, I'm like, 'Oh wow, there's so much more we can tap into.' So I learned a lot."
Maroulis' injury, which resulted in brain trauma that temporarily altered her personality, required a recovery period that was elongated due to the one-year delay of the 2020 Games amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
But while the delay was devastating for most athletes, Maroulis knows that it worked to her advantage, allowing her to fully recover. "It wasn't difficult for me personally, because I was coming off of a lot of head injuries," she tells PEOPLE of the Tokyo Olympics being pushed back to 2021. "And so I actually came back in January and I was going to try and make the team in April. So when they delayed it a year, it actually worked out in my favor."
"However," she adds, "just knowing how the pandemic was affecting people across the world and for all the athletes that were training for those four years. Some athletes were planning on having a kid or they were planning on doing this new job after. And so for them, it was probably more difficult. but for me, it actually was fine."
With under 100 days until Maroulis jets off to Tokyo, the gold medalist says that she's "honestly just really grateful" to be making her Olympic return after a rough journey.
"I'm really looking forward to competing," she tells PEOPLE. "I haven't been overseas in a while and haven't competed with a lot of these competitors who also end up being your friends because you know them throughout the year. So I'm looking forward to seeing them as well."
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As a trailblazer for female athletes, Maroulis tells PEOPLE that she believes women's wrestling has "come such a long way" over time. "It's definitely grown," she says.
"And that's just in part to people, especially the men just coming around to it and being supportive," adds Maroulis. "And so we actually just had our first Olympic team camp this last week, and it was a joint camp with the men and women, which had never been done before. And at the workouts, all the male Olympians were going with the female Olympians, partnering up. And nobody made us do it. The coaches were just shocked, like, 'Wow, this is so great that everyone is building each other up.' "
"Here we are in 2021," says Maroulis, "and all the men are going with the women and they're all teaching each other and sharing and helping. So it's grown tremendously."
Outside of wrestling, Maroulis has worked closely with When We Band Together, a program that offers support to refugees and displace people in Lesvos, Greece. For her efforts, Maroulis is receiving a $10,000 grant from P&G as part of its Athletes for Good Fund.
"As an athlete, it was very new for me going into this world of nonprofit," Maroulis admits. "And with fundraising, with everything, all the work that goes on, it's a lot of work. And so it's like, well, I want to contribute and I want to help out as much as possible."
"And so P&G actually helped incredibly with that, because they provided that opportunity for me to get this grant to go to When We Band Together," she adds. "And so that's really going to help. So I'm really grateful for that."
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