Exclusive: Adeline Gray body slams sexism in wrestling

The American wrestled boys growing up, but her determination to succeed led to five world titles and greater equality in the sport.
By Andrew Binner

Growing up as a female wrestler, Adeline Gray had no dreams of becoming a professional athlete.

After all, wrestling was a sport dominated by men for centuries, only making its Olympic debut for women at Athens 2004.

In Gray's mind, society in the United States dictated that she would give up wrestling to play 'soccer' at college (university), get a job and become a mother.

She had no major issue with this, but her true desire was to compete on the mat full time, and become an Olympian.

Nine years on, Gray is a five-time world champion, Rio 2016 Olympian, and a role model for female wrestlers around the world.

Earning respect on the mat

Gray's father taught her wrestling at the age of six, mostly in a bid to expend her copious amounts energy.

With no proper infrastructure in place for women's wrestling in schools, she had no option but to wrestle against boys.

“The coaching staff were so supportive and told me that although I was a girl, I was going to go out on the team and just be treated like any other athlete and wrestle.” Adeline Gray to Olympic Channel

"I had to be resilient with my losses, and focus more on the process than the result because although I was technically better than some opponents, it didn't always translate to a win."

But wrestling against boys in a supportive environment turbo-charged Gray's development.

The Colorado native made her high school boy's varsity team, but her family moved cities and Gray's presence didn't receive such a positive reaction.

Her new programme had never encountered female wrestlers, and some parents at opposition schools even objected to their sons wrestling a girl.

Gray channeled her frustrations onto the mat, winning 20/30 matches against her male rivals and eventually being chosen as her team's captain.

Adjusting to the female body

The 17-year-old went on to win the world junior title, but faced some issues when she started wrestling against women.

"I had to adjust to the female body, which has more flexibility in the shoulders and hips," she revealed to Olympic Channel.

"I suddenly went from being one of the weaker wrestlers against the boys, to one of the stronger athletes against girls. That ability to overpower my opponents was totally new to me."

Shunning 'soccer'

Despite wrestling at a high standard, Gray thought her sports career would go in a different direction, with a round ball.

"Women were expected to chase college scholarships in soccer and tennis, but never combat sports.

"But national wrestling coaches spotted me in a national competition that I won. They had to convince my parents that I could become a professional wrestler, and that it was a real career choice for women.

"During my Sophmore year at High School women's wrestling was brought into the Olympics and it exploded. But never did I think it would lead me to four world titles!

"This Olympic inclusion for women's combat sports changed the way women were talked about in sports, and showed they didn't have to be boxed into playing more feminine sports."

The cost of cutting weight

The American won bronze at the 2011 World Championships at 67 kg.

However, that weight category was not one of the four on offer for women at the London 2012 Olympics, so she decided to drop down to 63 kg for the U.S. Olympic trials.

As she had gained weight since the world champs, she had six months to lose 13 kg.

Gray achieved her goal, weighing in at 62.8 kg, before wrestling the next day at 70 kg.

“To put on almost seven pounds overnight shows you how much my body did not like being at that lower weight class,” Gray told Olympic Channel.

"I now know after winning five world titles that I'm a heavyweight, and should have probably gone up to 72 kg (at London 2012) and would maybe be an Olympic medallist there.

"It takes a lot of time and mental energy with food portions, to gain or lose weight. Wresting at a natural weight gives me a lot more time in the day to actually train and I can focus my energy on being as big and strong as I can be, instead of depriving myself.

"Not having to choose is good, but the female classes are still too small. Men compete at 125 kg, but aren't twice our size. I'd like to see 80 kg and 90 kg options for women, so wrestling isn't limited to women that are thin."

From domination to disappointment

Following London 2012, United World Wrestling added two more weight classes for women at 69 kg and 75 kg, the latter of which she moved up to in preparation for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Wrestling back at her natural weight class, Gray rediscovered her magic.

She won World Championships in 2012, 2014 and 2015, before booking her spot at Rio 2016 courtesy of a crushing 65-second victory in her final U.S. Olympic trials bout.

She was the World No. 1 heading into the Games having remained unbeaten for two years, and was odds on to win her nation's first Olympic gold medal in women's wrestling.

However, she was eliminated in a shock quarter-final loss to Vasilisa Marzaliuk of Belarus.

Six months later Gray revealed that she was carrying shoulder and knee injuries in Brazil, both of which required operations that would take her out of the sport for 11 months.

Increased body confidence

To add insult to Gray's injury, she lost her national team funding.

During her enforced break she got married, learned how to cook for herself for the first time in her adult life, continued with her master's degree in management, and thoughts of retiring to become a mother were a growing.

“As I wasn't lifting so many weights, my body got a lot softer, a little more feminine,” Gray told Olympic Channel.

“I have a kind of strong boy body, and I thought that was just my body, but really it’s a lot of the hard work I put in. I enjoyed fitting into smaller dress sizes and an increased body confidence.”

However, she still wanted one last crack at glory on the wrestling mat.

Gray's decision was vindicated when, in her first world championships since 2015, she dominated some of her greatest rivals, including Olympic champion Erica Wiebe, to win her fourth world title at the 2018 World Wrestling Championships.

"I thought about retirement a lot. To go on vacation and not have constant structure, and living my own life.

"But my teammates care for each other and were committed to the goal of being in Japan (for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics), and these women inspired me to return to the sport I love.

"I now realise that there is something outside sport, but also that I'm choosing to do this, and be part of an exciting time in the growth of women's sport.

"It's OK to be aggressive on the mat, and still have great hair"

Alongside Rio 2016 gold medallist Helen Maroulis, Gray's achievements have transformed women's wrestling in the United States.

At the 2019 Pan American Wrestling Championships in Argentina, all five female American representatives made their respective finals.

An amazing effort from a country, whose top stars were made to wrestle boys at high school just a decade previously.

She has also helped establish a number of all-female wrestling leagues.

"My first role model was Iris Smith, a world champion from Team USA, and she taught me that it's OK to be aggressive on the mat, and still have great hair and not lose my femininity.

"I hope to inspire a lot of girls to do something different, and to not shy away from wrestling just because some people aren't used to it." Gray to Olympic Channel.

"Women being competitive and combative is exciting. It's another step of this cultural shift towards giving young men and women equality, and getting people to buy tickets and watch women compete in elite sports.

Unfinished business at Tokyo 2020... and beyond

Gray's return to wrestling was ultimately with one goal in mind: Winning Olympic gold.

After winning the 2019 World Wrestling Championships in Nur-Sultan, that goal is edging towards a reality.

"Japan embodies everything that is great about women's wrestling," Gray told Olympic Channel.

"They have a solid foundation and produce champion after champion.

"We are trying to chase the Japanese team and show we can compete with that greatness. We want to knock on that door and I'm sure they will want to answer!"

Gray's continued excellence, coupled with Maroulis' recent return will likely make Tokyo 2020 the their most successful Olympics in wrestling to date.

But with the Paris 2024 Olympics already on the horizon, she didn't want to rule out retirement straight after Tokyo.

"It's very cliche but Paris is my favourite city, and my husband told me he's never been, so we might have to take a trip!.

"But it be a vacation rather than a quad-year Olympic cycle. Coach (Terry) Steiner tells me the future will come despite my worrying, and so I won't stress about it.