'The Adeline state of mind': Meet the Team USA wrestler to beat
Six months before the first whistle of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and much of Arena 2 is covered in plastic tarps.
The future home to August's Olympic judo and wrestling competitions, Arena 2 remains dimly lit even as the midsummer sun raises temperatures to 100 degrees. A dozen industrial fans try to displace the heavy air, but as wrestlers jog, drill and prep on blue mats, the fans' only effect seems to be added noise.
"I can literally see the Zika on the mat," says Adeline Gray, the 75kg representative for the United States. The world's top-ranked wrestler at her weight stares at mosquitoes attaching to practice mats laid on the concrete floor.
Gray wipes her hand across the surface showing the resulting combination of cleaning liquid and mosquitoes to a friend. "Um, this is gross."
It's January in Rio, and Zika -- including coverage of the devastating birth defects caused by the virus -- is dominating the news. Women of child-bearing age are nervous. Athletes have contemplated sitting out the Games in Rio, where the virus is rampant. Not Gray. She's concerned at a World Health Organization level, but the 25-year-old reflects on the news with a blunted affectation. "Should it bother me?" she says, "I'm not having babies right now. I'm wrestling."
Gray is in Rio along with female wrestlers from China, Russia, Mongolia, Brazil and Japan for the Olympic test event, a tournament organized as a dry run of the wrestling procedures in use during the Rio Games. But construction delays, an ongoing bribery controversy and general lack of funding have meant that many test events aren't proceeding under Olympic conditions. The wrestling event is no exception, but it has still attracted an unlikely distillation of talent at Gray's weight class.
Four of the five top-ranked women are entered to compete, including Gray's opponents in the last two world championship finals: Brazil's Aline da Silva Ferreira (2014) and China's Qian Zhou (2015). It was Zhou who also gave Gray the biggest scare of the past few years, opening up an eight-point lead in the first round of the 2014 world championships before Gray made an improbable comeback, using a leg-lace maneuver to earn 10 points and the win.
The talent pool makes this a full-throttle Olympic tune-up, and Gray is the woman to beat. She has defeated each of the titleholders and reigns as the only three-time world champion. She also comes into Rio favored to win an Olympic gold medal, a feat no U.S. woman has accomplished. And she has no doubt that she'll be the one to do it.
Gray's confidence, like her wrestling, is stripped-down -- this is a no-frills sort of domination she's imparting on the world. Her quick barbs are subtle, always authentic and refreshingly free of manufactured posturing. (She once responded to inquiry about her favorite male wrestler with, "Why would I watch men's wrestling?")
Ahead of the Rio test event, Gray pulls her ponytail tight and begins to jog around two of the mats laid down on the arena floor. She seems almost unaware of how steep her competition will be the following day, or more likely, she simply doesn't care. To Gray, the wrestling will just bring her one tournament, one step, closer to achieving her goal of becoming an Olympic champion.
Raised in a sports family
Gray got her start on the mats in Littleton, Colorado -- an hour drive from Colorado Springs, home to the U.S. Olympic Committee and the national wresting training center. Donna Gray sent her high-energy daughter to practice with an uncle who coached little league wrestling. Adeline liked it well enough, but didn't take to the sport with any more seriousness than her many other athletic pursuits. "In middle school I really thought I was going to be a professional soccer player," she says. "Which would have been something to see."
Before her freshman year in high school, Gray's family asked to her to choose a sport to focus on outside of school -- with three little sisters the family could afford the time and money to support one travel or specialty team per child. Gray's choice came down to the Olympic opportunity being presented in wrestling.
"It was weird, but I thought I could be an Olympic champion," Gray says. "I mean all of a sudden these women were on TV competing. It was real."
When a boyfriend of only a few weeks broke off their courtship because she spent "too much time wrestling," it made her choice even more clear.
"Him saying that kinda made me recognize how much I loved wrestling," says Gray. "Before that I guess I thought it was fun, that the Olympics were a distant dream, but that brought my dream into sharper focus."
Gray started traveling to the Olympic Training Center to learn from coach Terry Steiner and women on the team. She quit soccer and switched over to cross country in the hope of keeping herself in shape for the season, in which she'd mainly compete against boys.
"It took a while for opponents to treat me like other guys on the team," Gray says. "Finally some guy got beat and his friends were making fun of him, and he just yelled 'OK, fine, you go wrestle her!'"
Gray moved from high school to high school, in part to find the right training situation for her growing competitive appetite. In 2008 she won the junior world championship, a competition for wrestlers younger than 21 years old. She was 17.
That summer she moved to a high school in Northern Michigan, where she lived with USA Wrestling team member Jenna Burkert.
"She's different than most of us and in so many ways," says Burkert. "She can be down like nine points and really believe, like know, she is going to win. I started calling it the 'Adeline State of Mind.' She's just always been absolutely confident in her ability. It's good for her, but it's also contagious. Hang around her long enough, and you think you're unbeatable, too."
She finished her high school career with 40 pins, mostly against boys. She made the 2009 junior world team and later her first senior world team, moving back to Colorado to train full-time in Colorado Springs. She enrolled online at DeVry University so that she could devote more time to wrestling (she graduated in February).
Hoping to make the 2012 Olympic team, Gray cut almost 25 pounds to wrestle at 63kg. But she was exhausted by the weight loss and failed to make the team. She still won her first world championship later that year, wrestling back up at the 67kg weight class.
Heading into the 2013 season, Gray agreed to her coaches' request to move up to 72kg for the 2013 World Cup, an annual team-based event, as long as she could move back down to 67kg for the world championships later.
"She had what it took to be an Olympic champion at 72kg," says Steiner. "We knew that, and we could tell her, but she needed to feel it for herself in competition first."
Steiner was certain Gray was on the path to Olympic glory, but then an unexpected political event left Gray, and the sport, out of the Games.
On February 12, 2013, the International Olympic Committee recommended that the sport of wrestling -- one of the original sports of the Ancient Olympics -- be eliminated from the Olympic Games.
"I was upset, but I also just thought it was crazy," says Gray. "Wrestling was the first-ever sport of the Games and now it's, what? Gone? The whole thing was ridiculous. This is my life."
As word spread and outrage piqued, the political leadership of wrestling's international federation -- then known by the acronym FILA -- ousted president Raphael Martinetti and elected Serbian businessman Nenad Lalovic as their new head.
Lalovic's appointment would ultimately prove fateful for the Olympic future of women wrestlers around the world, and especially Gray.
At the time of Olympic dismissal, there were seven weight categories for each of men's freestyle and Greco-Roman, but only four for women -- a total of 14 weights to four. Weeks after his election, Lalovic took the issue of gender equity to the IOC and offered to make immediate change, suggesting to redistribute two men's weight classes -- one in each freestyle and Greco-Roman -- to women's wrestling.
The change would mean each discipline now had an equal number of Olympic weights (six) to be equally distributed between 48kg and a new weight of 75kg.
I kinda looked at 75kg like it was my weight class. And yeah whatever, my hips are fine. My hips win gold medalsAdeline Gray
"The decision for six weight classes was fair. Our women are some of the strongest in all of sports and needed more opportunity," said Lalovic. "We wanted to ensure gender equity to our athletes and be a good Olympic partner."
The consideration of gender equity, along with a multimillion-dollar promotional campaign to "Save Olympic Wrestling," helped wrestling earn reinstatement in the Olympic Games. The sport wasn't just back on the program -- it now offered new opportunities to women wrestlers like Gray, ever-stuck in 'tweener weights.
"I didn't want to get bigger," says Gray. "I'm like every woman where I wanted to have thinner hips and look awesome in a bathing suit, not put on more weight. And I was just convinced to go 72kg. Now add another seven-to-eight pounds to that? It's kinda gettin' up there."
For the 2013 world championships in Budapest, Team USA coaches had bargained with Gray to wrestle at 72kg. By the 2014 world championships, Steiner had convinced her that the newly instated 75kg class should be her home. That year, she breezed into the finals, where she bested Brazil's da Silva 2-1.
"Once Adeline believes in something, she's changed. I think she gets nervous like all of us," says Burkert. "But something happens when she steps on the mat. She changes. She's basically becomes unbeatable."
Gold medal in hand and her Olympic journey possible, Gray realized that she was done with yo-yoing between weights.
"I was the champ, and I kinda looked at 75kg like it was my weight class. And, yeah, whatever, my hips are fine. My hips win gold medals."
In December 2015, Gray stood center mat at the K.D. Jadhav Wrestling Stadium in central Delhi, India, moments away from the start of her fourth professional wrestling match. Fans were waving their hands in almost cartoonish ways, hoping to draw Gray's attention just long enough for eye contact -- a moment of recognition from a fast-rising female wrestling celebrity.
Women's wrestling in India has exploded in popularity since Geeta Phogat won the 2010 Commonwealth Games -- a quadrennial competition among former members of the British Empire -- and her sister Babita Kumari took silver. That growth has ballooned in the years since. Geeta became the first Indian woman to qualify for the Olympics in wrestling and later took bronze at the world championships. The sisters are so popular that their family's story will be on the big screen this December in the Bollywood film "Dangal."
And now, there stood Gray on the mat, being applauded by 3000-plus fans, TV cameras capturing her every wink, ready to compete in wrestling as a professional. And ready to cash checks like one too, with tens of thousands of dollars already guaranteed for Gray to wrestle.
It was then a week before Christmas, and in the first three matches of her Professional Wrestling League debut, Gray was undefeated and unchallenged. Gray was moving so smoothly that Coach Steiner sent her a text asking her to challenge herself a little more on the mats. Find something new. Fewer throws, more challenging techniques.
"Terry told me I had work on other stuff," Gray says in a false whimper. "Boooo."
As powerful as Gray appears, she's equally as flexible. She glided through her pre-match routine with her sister, Geneva, in tow. Wrestling requires a unique combination of strength and elasticity, so Gray's preparation included banded stretching, hip-turning calisthenic movements and a cycling through of her favorite techniques.
"I love this move," Gray says as she began to pinch Geneva's head and arm together like she was making her little sister hold a phone and change a light bulb at the same time.
Gray shifted her hips and sent Geneva smacking into the mat on her back, moaning and giggling at the same time. "The girls on the team won't wrestle with me if I use it," she says of the technique. "They call it my 'Big Bitch Move.'"
The move, put simply, is a painful version of a schoolyard headlock that requires pure brute strength to execute. Fortunately, Gray is among the strongest female wrestlers in the world -- an observation buoyed by the sight of Geneva's eyes slowly welling up from a lack of oxygen.
Recounting Steiner's instructions, Gray repeated, "I need to focus on takedowns. No throws, no leg laces -- most of these girls are smaller than me anyway."
Gray was soon called to the arena floor to call the coin flip opposite Delhi-based captain Mangalayatan University Dilli Veer Vinesh Phogat, the team's female 48kg wrestler. Her arrival warranted another round of applause.
Gray jogged to the edge of the mat wearing her team jacket and turned to her Geneva for some additional hair braiding. She let loose a rapturous grievance concerning a lack of payment by event organizers.
"I told 'em I'll fly home right now unless they pay," Gray says. "[The organizers] tell me the money is en route, but I don't trust it until I see it in my account."
Gray was showing everyone around her a photo she took of a recent "receipt" delivered by a team owner. She seemed unimpressed, and there was no question of her intent. The money was only about what it represented: respect.
After 45 minutes warming up in the back as her team wrestled, Gray's name was announced for the sixth bout of the night. She was to face a young Indian heavyweight, Nikki, who has seen limited success in world and league competition.
Gray's entrance was as triumphant as any at the WWE's Royal Rumbles. Fans erupted as the arena bumped to the sounds of the Mumbai team's anthem (each team has a unique song) and pyrotechnic displays distracted among a mixture of light and smoke.
From the first whistle, Gray swatted and bobbed like a cat playing with her food, moving the smaller Nikki from side to side, unfurling leg attacks and snapping down her opponent's head. Unable to get underneath, Gray focused on Nikki's head until the Indian wrestler straightened up, offering Gray an exposed arm and leg -- perfect opportunity to hit her big move. It was against the advice, but sometimes doing enough for the win is all that's needed.
When the League wrapped up on Dec. 27, Gray's Mumbai squad finished in first place, and the world's top-ranked 75kg wrestler remained unbeaten.
She was also paid in full.
An Olympic test
Gray's first opponent in January's Olympic test event is hometown hero da Silva. Like so many women on the mats, da Silva was a trailblazer in her country, becoming the highest-ever world placer for Brazil in wrestling when she took silver against Gray in the 2014 world finals.
She can be down like nine points and really believe, like know, she is going to win. I started calling it the 'Adeline State of Mind' she's just always been absolutely confident in her ability.USA Wrestling team member Jenna Burkert
Gray doesn't have as much of an issue in the rematch, but the score is close with Gray scooting past da Silva 2-0.
"Wrestling is hard enough," says Burkert. "But Adeline is the champion and she's the woman with the target on her back. She's the one that everyone is preparing for, and she's still beating them each time out. That takes extra dedication."
Gray's semifinal match is against Zhou, the Chinese wrestler who two years earlier was one point away from earning a technical fall before Gray powered back.
Zhou opens with a powerful front headlock to take a 4-0 lead, quickly following with another takedown to close the first period with a 7-1 lead over Gray.
"Sometimes you sit back and wonder how she climbs out of these big ol' holes," says Rich Bender, the executive director of USA Wrestling. And even as he paces back and forth, arms crossing and uncrossing, you get the sense he has seen this act before. "But watch, she'll come back."
The Adeline State of Mind.
Three minutes of the first period gone and only three more left, Gray opens the second period unflustered. She digs under Zhou's arms to find the position to hit her signature move. Zhou stays active in her defense, but loses an angle which gives Gray the chance for a leg-attack takedown.
Zhou leads 7-3.
Back to their feet after no action on the mat, Gray attacks a backpedaling Zhou with a series of cupped hands to the back of the head. Gray's trying to distract Zhou and force her chin up, but Zhou submits to the pressure and drops her hands to the mat, and in a hiccup Gray has another quick go-behind.
Zhou leads 7-5.
With only two minutes on the clock, Gray needs to score twice. Bender yells generic encouragements. And with coaches barking instructions and fans from all sides cheering, the three-time world champion reaches down and -- as she's practiced a million times before, in practice halls from Colorado to India -- swims her arm through Zhou's legs and locks in her leg lace. One, two and then six times around, Gray finds 12 points and another unlikely 17-7 technical fall victory.
Coach Steiner claps, and table workers begin to turn their heads to wonder if anyone else was tuning in to that comeback.
"Told ya!" exclaims Bender, slapping a colleague on the back. "Gosh darn it, I told ya. Ya' can't coach that!"
Next up for Gray is former top-ranked 75kg Canadian wrestler Erica Wiebe, who, after stumbles at the world championships in September, looked fantastic in quickly disposing of 2013 world champion Fengliu Zhang of China in her semifinal.
The finals begin and the script repeats itself. Gray falls behind early, roars back and gives fans of USA Wrestling a minor coronary in the process. This time Gray finishes the match winning 7-4.
"What. A. Freakin'. Stud," says Bender.
Gray walks off the mat, smiling broad enough to reveal her thick white mouthpiece. This was her first big Olympic test of 2016, but she knows there will be smaller ones in the weeks ahead. She'll need to figure out what to eat, when to schedule media, find workout partners, map sleep schedules.
Over the next six months her opponents will practice repeatedly a defense to Gray's leg lace. They'll pore over film of her "big bitch" move. They'll dissect her positioning. They will find weaknesses in her strategy.
But so will Gray.
"Maybe I'm immune to criticism," she says. "But I take everything said as a compliment and all my challenges as opportunity. I never think it's over; there's always a chance. I don't think that's optimism, but probably more just my confidence, like a sign of self-love."