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Even After Olympic Final Defeat, Adeline Gray Keeps Big-Picture Perspective

Adeline Gray (left) and Aline Rotter-Focken in the 2020 Olympic Gold Medal Match (Photo courtesy of Larry Slater; LBSphoto.smugmug.com)

This isn't exactly how Adeline Gray pictured her Olympic moment.

She didn't envision watching Aline Rotter-Focken, a longtime competitor and peer, carry the Germany flag around the center mat in celebration. She didn't visualize standing on the second-place podium inside Japan's Makuhari Messe Hall A.

And she surely didn't imagine all of this would happen with basically no fans in the stands, either.

"This is the first world or Olympic championship my dad has missed since I was 16 years old," Gray said earlier this week, "so it's a real heart-breaker for my family."

No, Adeline Gray didn't picture her Olympic moment to be a silver one, but that's ultimately what it looked like on Monday after she lost to Rotter-Focken, 7-3, in the women's freestyle Olympic finals at 76 kilograms (167 pounds).

The 30-year-old had always believed her Olympic moment would be gold, the perfect bow on one of the greatest women's freestyle careers in USA Wrestling history. She's won five world titles, seven total world medals, and is now an Olympic silver medalist.

In the immediate aftermath, Gray wore a smile and kept high spirits, at least publicly. As Rotter-Focken celebrated the biggest accomplishment of her own stellar wrestling career, Gray kept her focus on the bigger picture and her greater purpose.

"You don't come to lose," Gray said in an interview with NBC Sports afterward. "But I gave it my all. I took some shots, and I went in there and battled, and unfortunately, I didn't come out on top. It's going to take a little while to soak in that loss.

"But I'm coming back with a silver medal from the Olympics. I'm so thrilled for that."

Indeed, there is still history in Gray's accomplishment. She is now the sixth Olympic medalist in American women's freestyle wrestling history, joining Helen Maroulis, who won gold in 2016; Clarissa Chun, bronze in 2012; Randi Miller, bronze in 2008; Sara McMann, silver in 2004; and Patricia Miranda, bronze in 2004.

Each have been trailblazers for women's wrestling in the United States. McMann and Miranda were the first medalists. Maroulis won the first gold. All of it helped spur the recent growth in girls' and women's wrestling across America - 32 state high school associations now offer girls' wrestling as an official high school sport, and the NCAA recently classified women's wrestling as an emerging sport - and around the world.

Gray has long embraced that role publicly, and actually came face-to-face with it back in April. To make this year's Olympic squad, she beat 17-year-old Kylie Welker, one of the many young women's wrestlers who starred at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Gray swept the finals series handily, 10-0 and 11-0, but the moment made her look inward.

"I vividly remember a match at nationals years ago," Gray said after the trials. "I tech'd this young woman, who was in college. She popped up, so excited, and ran over to me and said, 'You're my favorite, and I can't wait to really compete against you one day.'

"That opened my eyes. These women are, a) really coming after me, so I have to stay on top, and b) they have role models. That's something women haven't always had. I'm excited that these young girls are seeing that they can do these things … being a role model and reaching new heights is really important for that whole dynamic."

By "new heights," of course, she meant Olympic success, and Gray had a prime opportunity five years ago in Rio.

She entered the 2016 Games on a tear, having won five straight Senior-level world medals, including back-to-back world titles in 2014 and 2015. She began her quest for Olympic gold with a first-match pin, but nagging injuries in her shoulder and knee caught up to her. She lost her second match, then was eliminated from the tournament.

After taking 2017 off to recover from surgeries, Gray returned to form in 2018 with another world title, then again in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed her redemptive run for another year, but when her second Olympic opportunity arrived this week, she came to Japan more driven and focused than she had been back in 2016.

"We talked a lot about that this summer," said Terry Steiner, USA Wrestling's women's head coach. "She had a great summer of preparation, way different from what we did in 2016, and just what her mind was and what her purpose was.

"You never know how that's going to translate, but I knew that the day-to-day training, the day-to-day focus, the day-to-day purpose was a lot different than it was in 2016."

Gray began her gold-medal quest the same way she did in 2016, with a first-match pin, over Tunisia's Zaineb Sghaier. In the quarterfinals, she muscled out a 6-4 win over Turkey's Yasmin Adar, a 2017 world champ. In the semifinals, she beat Kyrgyzstan's Aiperi Medet Kyzy, 3-2, securing her spot in the final.

The gold-medal match tilted in Rotter-Focken's favor near the end of the first period. Gray, trailing 1-0, attempted a shot that Rotter-Focken turned into a 2-point exposure, a 3-0 lead. In the second period, Gray committed to another shot, but Rotter-Focken countered again for a 4-point takedown and a 7-0 lead.

Though frustrated with the loss, Gray found immediate positives in her performance - and not just in what she accomplished on the mat over her two days of competition, but how her growth off the mat allowed her to author a different Olympic ending from the one she experienced in Rio.

"So much mental fortitude," Gray said. "I can come out here and still win matches and still be dominant and powerful and still learn on this journey, and that's what I did over the last five years. I improved. I made a better me.

"I know it didn't show up in the color of my medal, but I'm still coming home with hardware, and I'm just glad this journey has been what it's been. I really proved to myself that I'm a powerful force, and that's going to take me a long ways in this life."

No, this wasn't the Olympic moment Adeline Gray envisioned when she took the mat on Monday. She believed she'd be America's second-ever women's freestyle gold medalist. She wanted so badly to add another first-place finish to her lengthy list of wrestling accolades.

But she didn't let her loss impact her bigger picture and greater purpose. Gray decided the lens through which she viewed this accomplishment. Ultimately, she chose inspiration - for her teammates who will compete in the days ahead, and for the next wave of women's wrestlers who will follow in her footsteps.

"If you look at women's wrestling, it's blowing up," Gray said. "Being a little girl in the United States, in this world - I didn't dream big enough. I didn't know I could be a professional athlete in my 30s. I didn't know that I could have a husband and a career and be able to balance those two things on this stage.

"I really held myself back at a young age because I didn't know these things were possible, so I hope all the little girls watching really understand that they can go and get their Master's degrees, and they can go and win Olympic medals. They can have balance in their lives and still focus on really big things.

"I hope they see this group of women who are doing amazing things," she continued, "and they can take their goals, set those goals, and make them even bigger."

Comments

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DannyClarke (1) about 2 months ago
A legend in our sport. A role model for wrestlers everywhere. She should be proud! (And it sounds like she is)
Sheerstress (1) about 2 months ago
That interview was all class, respect, and in full recognition of her being a top role model for women's wrestling. Way to go Adeline.