In the back of his mind, Max Sartoph always had a feeling Helen Maroulis would go on to achieve big things.
As Maroulis' wrestling coach at Magruder High School in Rockville, Md., Sartoph helped Maroulis hone her skills as one of the state's top high school competitors. In 2006, as a freshman, Maroulis became the first girl to place at the MPSSAA state wrestling championships, finishing sixth in the Class 4A/3A 112-pound division.
Fast forward 10 years, and the 24-year-old is in prime position to show she's the best in the world. In mid-August, Maroulis, a three-time world medalist, will enter the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as one of the favorites to win gold in the 116-pound weight class.
Sartoph spoke with PressBox about his unique experience coaching Maroulis, his handling of the challenges she had to overcome as a female wrestler and his expectations for how she will fare at the Olympics.
What was it like to have the opportunity to coach a girl in high school as talented as Helen? Had you ever had the experience of working with a girl before in such a male-dominated sport?
Max Sartoph: I went to Magruder, and I was a student at Magruder. I graduated in 1991. Earlier -- and I don't remember if I was a junior or a senior -- we had a girl come out for our team way back then. She wasn't even the first girl to wrestle in our area, but she was one of the first. I remember a lot of our coaches talked to us about just treating her like any other teammate. I remember we had trouble with our teams, because coaches wouldn't send people out to wrestle against her.
So when Helen came to wrestle for me about 15 years after that, I guess not many females had wrestled between then. I think there were maybe a handful, but it still wasn't as new. But there were still some coaches that wouldn't send people out to wrestle against her and didn't necessarily like that there was a female wrestler competing. But it wasn't anything new to me. I'm assuming Helen would say the same thing, but I don't think it was a huge deal to have her on the team. She practiced just as hard as everybody else, and she worked just as hard as everybody else. So it didn't seem as much as a novelty to me, but I think that's because I had already been around a situation like that before.
How do you think that experience helped prepare you to coach Helen when she arrived at Magruder?
MS: I'm sure it definitely helped. Before I coached at Magruder, I coached at Rockville for a couple years, and we had a girl come out for the team. Now, none of these girls I'm talking about are anywhere close to as talented as Helen -- they were girls who just decided to give wrestling a shot. But I had this girl at Rockville that worked so hard that I almost just had to have her on the team. I was unsure when she first came out about how all that would exactly work, even though I had been on a team with a girl that wrestled when I was in high school. But this was the first time, as a coach, that I would have to coach a female wrestler. However, when she came out and worked just as hard as everybody else, you know, I kind of just told myself, "Man, anyone who can come out here and work hard and make it to a practice deserves to be here." And that girl, I think she was actually always scared to wrestle in a match -- she never wrestled in another match, the girl from Rockville. But she came to practice all the time. So I think that kind of set me up for having no problem with a girl wrestling for me.
If Helen went to another school, she might not have gotten the same opportunities. Now, she started wrestling many years before she got to high school. She came to me already as a very talented wrestler. That probably helped, the fact that she came in and had a lot of experience. I knew she was talented and was going to be one of the best on the team.
At what point did you realize Helen's potential in the sport? Is there a specific match or meet that comes to mind?
MS: As a freshman, she placed sixth in the state. She was the first girl to place in the state of Maryland and the first girl to place in our county and our region. A freshman boy who would make it to the state final, that's considered a huge accomplishment. Her making the state tournament as a freshman was huge. Then, I think it was her sophomore year, we went to this tournament in Hagerstown, [Md.,] and she wrestled this guy -- he was a stud -- he was a quality wrestled and looked like a wrestler. He was tough. He was mean. He had tattoos. Kids had to wrestle someone with tattoos and that was intimidating. But she wrestled this guy and pinned him in overtime. It was an amazing match, and everybody just kind of stopped and started watching this match. I think she lost in the next round, so she was in the consolation round the next day. She ended up having to wrestle this same guy, and the first thought that was, "This guy is going to come in and destroy her." She beat him in a great match, and everybody was watching, and he was probably pretty upset by it. So I was really nervous, because I thought he was going to come in and take it to her. When they met the second time, the match was similar to the one they had the night before, and I think she pinned him again in overtime. The coaches ended up voting her the most valuable wrestler for the tournament, and that's pretty unheard of for a kid that doesn't win the tournament -- she placed third. I think that's a testament to the fact that she worked so hard and is really tough. I think she really impressed a lot of people that weekend. That was another time I got to see just how strong she really is, how good of a wrestler she is and how mentally prepared she is.
As a coach, what would you say are some of Helen's biggest strengths on the mat?
MS: I guess I would say that she is just really a student of the sport. She wants to learn. Her technique is great, and she really knows what she is doing. She studies the sport, and she learns. She would say that she really didn't have the strength, and she couldn't compete strength-wise with the other boys, although I think that's different now -- she has a lot of strength to her now. Back then, it had to be her talent, her knowledge of the sport and her skill. Again, she's just a student of the sport. She just wants to learn and do well.
I had a chance to see her this year. She's always all over the world, and I don't really get to see her that much. This year, she came in and gave a clinic at my school that I was working with this year. One of the things she talked about was she met this new Russian coach that she's been working with lately, and she really liked him because he's taught her some other things. She also likes his style. But that's the kind of wrestler she is, as she's always looking for ways to improve with whatever it might be -- whether it's her diet, her wrestling skill. But, yeah, she's always looking to improve.
What's your relationship with Helen like now?
MS: I mean, I just get to be a fan now. So whenever I get to see her now, I just like hearing about where she's going, what she's doing, how her training's going. I just kind of like to catch up on what's going on with her. She told me this interesting story the last time I saw her. She was supposed to go out training with this new coach of hers in Ukraine or somewhere out there. She received a message and was told not to go, because things aren't going well in that area of the world, and the State Department says don't go because if there were any troubles, they couldn't do anything to help. So she was supposed to go out there with some other wrestlers, and they decided they weren't going to go. She ended up talking to the coach, and he said something like, "Oh, don't worry about it. Everything will be fine." And I think she talked to her dad, and he said something like, "Oh, don't go, absolutely not. You're not going." I think she went, and everything turned out fine. But that's how serious she is about the sport. She wants to take advantage of whatever opportunities she gets.
Looking back on your time working with Helen, could you have ever imagined her making it to the Olympics?
MS: This was always her goal, to make it to the Olympics. I always felt like she could make it, because I knew how talented she was. She's kind of always been fairly close since the beginning of women's wrestling at that level. So I had a feeling that she could do very well. Of course, it's always your dream as a coach to have an athlete go and achieve the highest level in their sport, so I'm just excited to have been a part of her experience. I don't, by any means, take credit for the success she has had. Like I said, she came to me with a lot of experience already. I feel like I was able to help her continue to grow and experience more things. But like I said, now I just get to be a fan, and I'm just happy to have been a part of her whole wrestling experience.
Where will you be watching Helen when she competes?
The guy that I coached with at the time I was at Magruder, Kevin Phelps, him and I will be in Rio in the stands watching her. Kevin Phelps … I think he is a volunteer assistant at Good Counsel, which is where [Olympic wrestler] Kyle Snyder went. So me, Kevin Phelps and Kyle's coach from Good Counsel, Coach Saar, we're all going out there together to go see Kyle and Helen wrestle. So that should be a good time.
For more from local athletes heading to the 2016 Summer Olympics, visit PressBoxOnline.com/olympics
Issue 223: July 2016