NEW YORK (AP) - Under the bright lights of Times Square, Adeline Gray grabbed the microphone and turned an interview into an impromptu speech about the virtues of wrestling.
Gray had just taken part in the annual exhibition here for the first time Thursday, where a temporary mat and stands are set up beneath the billboards and skyscrapers. The announcer bellowed her name, young fans screamed and tourists paused to crane their necks to see what was going on.
Now for the next three months, Gray will return to the mostly anonymous life of training for the Olympics. But in August in Rio, she could make history as the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling. With Olympic gold comes attention, and with attention comes the potential to inspire little girls across the U.S. to take up wrestling.
“I hope it really lights a spark in them,” Gray said Wednesday about the coverage women’s wrestling could receive in Rio. “It gives them an opportunity to see this is an option, that you can step on the mat and be a female and also be a wrestler.”
Though the 25-year-old Gray grew up wrestling with the boys, she didn’t understand the sport could be a career until she was in high school and met world champion Iris Smith. By then, it was even a bit late to start pursuing those goals.
“It was so great to meet someone who was strong and powerful and beautiful — and a world champion,” Gray said. “And I got to realize that my role model was there. I hope I’m that for young girls everywhere.”
That Gray is a gold medal favorite is a result of the growth of women’s wrestling. Four years ago, her weight class, 75 kilograms (165 pounds), wasn’t in the Olympics. Gray had to try to make the team at a lower weight and lost at trials.
But now the Olympics have expanded from four to six women’s weight classes, adding 75 kilograms. And Gray is a three-time world champion riding a 37-match winning streak.
As in many Olympic sports, world titles don’t attract anywhere near the same attention as Olympic gold medals. Afsoon Johnston, who in 1989 became the first American woman to win a world championship medal, is confident the U.S. is ready to capture at least one gold — if not more — in Rio. The Olympics added women’s wrestling in 2004 at the Athens Games.
“Women’s wrestling has a high potential for bringing home those Olympic medals, and Americans love to see that and cheer for that,” said Johnston, who now coaches with USA Wrestling. “Once we make history this summer, that’s going to be definitely a lot more visible within the United States, and we’re going to have more mainstream fans.”
Especially since during the Olympics, Americans are accustomed to following women’s sports. And she believes this is the perfect societal moment for wrestling.
“We’re at that age where femininity has been redefined: You can see a very tough woman — with muscles, with strength, with endurance — battling, and that’s still feminine,” Johnston said. “Because of that, I think women’s wrestling is going to gain more attention and popularity and support.”
That was the inspiration a teenage Gray took from Smith. And now she hopes to do the same for many more girls.
“It’s the tenacity and the toughness that they see,” said Gray, who beat Canada’s Justina Di Stasio 11-0 on Thursday in “United in the Square,” in which top American, Iranian, South Korean and Canadian wrestlers competed in a fundraiser for wrestling nonprofit Beat the Streets. “I don’t think women always are portrayed as tough. When you go out there, you have to be tough; you have to be brave. You have to really believe in yourself to step on that mat and have the confidence to win.
“And I think that’s something that girls are drawn to. They realize how important confidence is in so many areas of their lives.”
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