This week’s conversation is with Adeline Gray, one of the top professional freestyle wrestlers in the world, male or female.
She is a 2016 Olympian, five-time World Champion (2012, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019), seven-time World Championship medalist and went undefeated in international competition from 2014-2016.
Adeline’s 2019 World title and fifth World Championship win gave her the title of the most decorated female American wrestler in history.
I wanted to speak with Adeline to understand how she became a trailblazer for her sport – how did she stay the course when there wasn’t one, when there were few role models to look up to?
Adeline’s story isn’t all roses – after going undefeated from 2014-2016 in international competition, she wasn’t able to get it done at the 2016 Rio Olympics, finishing in 7th place.
We discuss what went wrong at those Games and how’s she’s adjusted her mindset heading into the Tokyo Olympics.
I think this is a perfect conversation with the Games only a few weeks out…
“I would love if my career could work as an inspiration for women to explore sports that haven’t been readily available to them.”
In This Episode:
Dealing with stereotypes growing up
Stereotypes are a huge deal in wrestling, and especially just talking about women’s wrestling you really have an image that comes in your head of this Olga type woman is supposed to be massive and towering over everyone. I think the best way I could put is my mom’s friends all watch me on TV and will watch me wrestle and see pictures of me, and I look big and strong and powerful and mean on the wrestling mat, and then I will meet my mom’s friends later and they will always ask me, “You’re the wrestler? But you look like a woman.” I’m like, “I am woman.” And they’re like, “But you look so nice and that’s not what you look like.” It’s always an interesting exchange because I’m sitting there looking at them like, “What did you expect?”
When did she start wrestling?
I was six. My head coach was my uncle. He laid down the hammer. He was like, “These women are allowed to be in this room. They will be treated as equals.” He always really spoke to us as if it was the same as race. He was like, “I don’t care if you’re black or white or purple, if you are a male or a female.” He’s like, “If you have an ability or are an able-bodied person, or a disabled person, we’re going to find a place for you in this wrestling room, and you’re going to earn your right to be here and you’re going to do that through hard work and paying attention and having this structure essentially of enjoying this art of wrestling.”
What was it like training with boys?
The only chance I had was to train with the boys and I did that between six years old all the way through high school. It wasn’t without some challenges. Definitely within my wrestling room, I felt very accepted and cared for and I was part of that team and I had training partners. I had people who would really wrestle me. They wouldn’t go out there and just try to lose or try to hurt me. I felt like they were competitors and made me better, and they treated me like an athlete. That was always the respect that I asked from people was to treat me as an athlete. And then, when we went into other people’s clubs where we had tournaments, there were a few people who didn’t really understand and wanted the purity of the sport and had these ideas that boys and girls shouldn’t wrestle. I didn’t really understand it.
What was her experience like being a wrestler growing up?
It’s a harder life that people question and judge. They didn’t understand why I was doing weight management plans when I was in high school. My friends weren’t working as a hard as I was, so it was weird that I had abs. There were some weird things that come along with hard work in wrestling, like I have broader shoulders and a bigger upper body than some of my female friends that just run cross country do. So there are definitely some of those stereotypes that you try to fit into, especially as a 16 year old girl who’s very concerned about her looks and how she fits into the world. Wrestling provided some challenges.
Forging her own path
I won the Junior World Championships without knowing all the rules yet and realized that I had put in enough effort training against young men and boys that I could jump into the international stage and do very well, and that was the beginning of this path that led me down to now being on national team for over 10 years. I now have five world titles. I just qualified for my second Olympics, and it’s been pretty crazy just to know that I’m 30 years old and I am a professional athlete and I didn’t really know that women could do that. I knew of Serena Williams, but I also didn’t know that you could be a professional all the way through your 20s, and so it has been transformative to understand and grow into this person that didn’t really have as many role models as I would have liked to growing up.
What’s her relationship with winning?
I think for most people, is the fear of not being loved because you lose. It sounds dumb when you say out loud, “My mom’s love for me is not related to whether or not I win or lose this match,” but it’s helpful because that is a fear and a thought in a lot of kids’ minds. I got into a habit at a pretty young age to asking my mom, “Will you love me even if I lose?” She would tell me yes, and that is now something that I do with my husband, and at the beginning, he rolled his eyes. He was like, “Why is that even a question? This sounds really silly for you to even ask this question. “I’m like, “Will you just tell me you love me if I lose?” And then, of course, he responds back, “I’ll love you even if you lose, but don’t lose.” It feels silly and routine but it also allows me the freedom to know that when I step on the mat, this is just about wrestling. This isn’t about the love between my husband and me. This isn’t about the love of a mother and daughter. This isn’t going to encompass anything other than this wrestling match, and you can make the essence of the gold medal that we’re trying to get to so big. It’s a financial, it’s the accolade, it’s people adoring and loving you. There is love from certain areas that is greater when you win, and the United States and the world loves a winner. So there is some of that attached to it. But the personal relationships that I have are not directly affected, and it’s very freeing for me to have this talk with the people in my life who I care about and know that they’re still going to be there even if I lose. I trust them to know that that actually is the answer.
How does she think about working hard vs working smart?
I have a lot of experience and education and real life practices that I have gone through, and I have learned what some base necessities to be able to do what I need to do. There’s mental toughness, there’s pushing through pain, there’s understanding when you’re injured versus hurt. There’s so much to athletics that you have to know about yourself and I am very self-aware and I understand, and I have a good voice when it comes to when to stand up for myself and when to challenge the coach, or when to listen to the coach. And, I have a trust in myself with that, and my coach has a trust in me for that. just want to caution that people aren’t telling their kids they don’t need to work hard, but my philosophy is not always to work harder. I pull back more than I push in many realms and I do not consider myself the hardest worker on the team. I can’t do the most pushups. I can’t do the most take downs. I can’t really do the most of anything, but like any combat sport or MMA idea, I am able to be pretty proficient at a lot of these different areas and put it together to create my dominance on the mat.
Why winning has a different significance for some competitors
remember a Bulgarian wrestler who wrestled years after she probably should have because that was her only way she could do anything. She didn’t have education. She didn’t have a place to go other than this wrestling, and wrestling was so good to her because she was great. She was a multi-Olympic medalist, multi-World Champion. I’ve seen some women who had nothing else. And, you have these coaches who put this pressure on these young women … At a Junior World Championship, I saw there was a young woman who got kicked on the stairs after she lost her match. I went to my coach and was like, “I don’t understand.” He had to say this to me, he was like, “You are A, an American who has a lot of options and opportunities. You can go back and pursue your education. You could go and get a full career. You could go and get married. You have so much in front of you.” And, he was like, “Some of these women, this is their only shot to take care of their families and set themselves up for a different life.” I’ve been able to embrace a different life through wrestling, but it never was from that pressure point of this is the only way I’m ever going to make it. I would be okay without wrestling where some of these women would never be afforded any opportunity other than the fact that they were saw to have something special about them in their sport.
What does she fear?
I think getting hurt is one of them, having lasting injuries that would be part of my life for the rest of my life. I’ve had some significant injuries and the body’s just never the same after you hurt it. It’s interesting because I’ve had so much knowledge brought to me through my injuries and I’ve learned so much about myself that I know how to take care of my body and I know how to help some others take care of their body. Also, admiration. We’re in a world of social media and I have 82,000 followers that like my photos and tell me that I look great that day, and those words of affirmation are nice. It’s nice when you win something and people come up to you and say congratulations. I’ve been doing that since I was 15 years old, gotten this recognition from this one thing in my life and you ride those highs pretty easily. I think stepping away is scary, if you think about that doesn’t last forever and you don’t have that constant attention and people willing to adjust. My family does a lot to help shelter me from some of the external things leading up to competitions and they’re willing to adjust my dietary restrictions and make me the special one pretty often.
What else makes her job difficult?
What other things do I carry? I think I carry the weight of almost women’s equality. Is there more to women’s wrestling than just somebody who wants to go out there and wrestle? Is this talking about should women be allowed to do any sport or any job in the world? Should women be allowed to be paid and recognized in a strong combative way. Breaking some of the molds about should women be aggressive? Should women be taught to punch hard? Should women be taught to carry big things? Does that mess up the dynamic roles between me and my husband? Does that ability for me to be able to protect myself in certain situations make me less … Does that somehow create a vulnerability dynamic that is challenging? So I think there is a little piece of that that I carry with me and question and wonder about from time to time.
What went wrong at the Rio Olympics
In 2016, I was undefeated for back-to-back World Championships leading into the Olympic Games in Rio. We had an Olympic test event at the beginning of that year and it was supposed to be this easy event where you go and you test out the facilities and we make that the competition venue’s ready. And, there weren’t supposed to be very many tough countries there so I entered the competition after a pretty hard training camp so I wasn’t very ready for the event and I ended up winning the event, but I was pretty tired. It was a very hard event, and at the end of the day, you saw this podium of women on the podium and I was like, “This could be who wins the Olympics in a couple of months.” I was on top, which was great, and the next person … And, I had had a couple matches where I dominated some of my top competitors so there was a lot of buzz and a lot of media attention about how I pretty much had already won the Olympic title and how this was my year and that no one was going to be able to beat me. I got a little caught up in that, in the conversation that I had already won something that I hadn’t already won. And then, there was a lot of media attention and buzz, some things mentally I felt like I got overwhelmed and stressed out about. Which, this is one of the biggest events you’ll ever do in your life is the Olympic Games. You have the Olympic Village, opening ceremonies. You have media attention. I know this is going to be a shock to most people, but not a lot of people watch women’s wrestling so the fact that people were coming to our events and being excited and talking about wrestling was cool to us and that happens on the Olympic year. A lot of Olympians live through that where people only care about us once every four years. With Zika going on, as a female in her baby bearing years, I was a hot topic person who could formulate a sentence well enough to get some news plugs from me. It was a lot leading up to the Olympics. I also had a shoulder injury that my medical staff and I decided not to explore and to just ignore until after the Olympics because it really wasn’t going to change. I didn’t have time to have surgery and so we just did the rehab that we could and did some pain management, and I was in a lot of pain every day leading up to the event. That pain wearing on you consistently put me in a space where I started to think about the future. And I remember I took down one of my teammates and I was like, “That could be the last take down I do, and you just felt the hardest I will ever hit anybody. This is the best shape of my life.” That looking back was a really dangerous statement. I was so implanted in the future about what was going to happen after the Olympics that I really wasn’t ready for the actual Olympics and the actual event that was at my feet.
How she is approaching the Tokyo games?
With COVID and the protocol that’s getting put into place, we’re doing no opening ceremonies, there’s no village. I mean, there’s so many no’s. This is going to be an Olympic Games like nothing we’ve ever experienced. It’s still the Olympic Games. There’s still a gold medal on the line. There’s still a life changing experience that’s going to happen and I believe it’s pretty well set up for me to do fairly well because I don’t even have the option to have some of the Team USA house or have my family there or have friends who are asking about tickets. There’s things that are outside that COVID put a stop to so you’re going to have a lot of athletes who are focused and don’t have those distractions, including media. I’ve been trying to coach some of my newest crowned Olympians, my teammates, and encourage them to not overthink that like I did on the day of, and deal with some of those emotions earlier. And then, the next step is just to go out there and win matches. I think it’s being focused and being dominant. I really think women’s wrestling has a lot of exciting things to offer and I can be very exciting to watch on the wrestling mat, so I think if I can get some highlights reel type stuff would be so cool. To be able to hit your best moves on that elite state and with the world watching, and with how closed down everything currently is, the world will be watching so I think it’ll be really awesome to get that exposure for not just myself, but for women in general.
Does she have a mindfulness practice?
I actually do a lot of meditation right now. My sister is so annoyed with it. My sister is my training partner and lives with me right now, so I’m always asking her, “Hey, want to meditate?” She’s like, “Please leave me alone. I do not want to think about my thoughts.” With the pandemic, when it happened, I had actually cracked a couple of ribs so I needed a little bit more time to heal and I couldn’t really do a lot of wrestling so I got into a pretty routine meditation practice. Our sports psychologist set it up with a bunch of Team USA athletes and so we had these group meditation practices and these individual meditation practices. It became my main focus during the pandemic was me just developing this practice and figuring out how different techniques can fit into wrestling and it’s been very helpful, not just for sport but for life in general. I am very thankful that I’ve put in so much effort and energy into developing this practice and excited for the future that it holds and the payoff …
What does she hope little girls can learn from her?
I would love if my career could work as an inspiration for women to explore sports that haven’t been readily available to them. I think often women get pushed into team sports because we’re communitive and we build these team friendships and we have these bonds that we create that is a little bit more similar to our gender, and you share pressure in all the stuff. But women are very strong and I believe mentally and physically can figure out how to make those gains and embrace them with pure success. We see these highlight women who are coming out and just dominating. You have Simone Biles, you have Serena Williams. That would be something that I hope that me, being a female wrestler, can show young girls is that they’re allowed to be strong and powerful and be in control of their own bodies to make decisions about how they want to be in this world. I think that’s the best thing I could do is just have my hard work not just be for me, and hopefully it’s not just for me because it’s really hard … What I do is very difficult and I don’t know if it would be worth it if it was just for me. So, I really hope there’s some little girls and some young women out there who realize that it’s not too late. I had a roommate who made the Olympic team. She didn’t start wrestling until she was 18 years old, so you don’t have to be six to start wrestling. Wrestling is an art and if you commit to it and learn these drills, and relearn them, it develops into something truly beautiful and important that can craft you winning a wrestling match.
What does she hope men can learn from her?
I would love if we could get to a point where men could see me as a role model the same way that I grew up seeing men as a role model. I think that’s another level of equality that young boys can be inspired by my success and by my skillsets and by me lacking in some areas, like strength or having a greater body fat than what my male counterpart does and seeing that not as anything other than what I have in my toolbox and making it work. So, I really think from an athlete standpoint, there’s young men out there who can use my career as an inspiration the same way that young girls have looked up to men’s sports for a long time. also think from a people perspective, just looking at adults, I think that they can look at my career and my life and see that women can wrestle and do strong and powerful and intense things and still be part of our society as adult women who are able to have full-time careers through their lives and be professional athletes into their 30s and not have that be a dream that’s unattainable for young women who want that.
How does she think about mastery
I think about mastery in a few different areas. I think it’s definitely consistency and figuring out what you want and how to attain it. I’ve been able to reach that by understanding that everything I do isn’t just for wrestling. When I stepped away from the sport, I realized that I make a very good base athlete. I enjoy working out. I enjoy eating healthy. I enjoy getting sleep and I don’t have a lot of vices when it comes to drugs or alcohol or things that would make me not eligible to compete in my sport. My weight stays pretty consistent. And then, I was able to just identify the few things that I needed to be great and I was willing to sacrifice and do those hard things to be able to replicate winning over and over again. So mastery to me is that, being educated enough in what you’re doing to know who you are and why that base person isn’t eat-sleep-breathe wrestling, even though we love that idea.
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- Finding Mastery 231: Kelley O’Hara on Responding to Adversity On and Off the Field
- Finding Mastery 193: Apollo Ohno on Competition, Olympic Greatness, and Transitions
- Finding Mastery 190: Katie Zaferes on Her Approach to the Tokyo Olympics
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