Adeline Gray’s journey to Rio de Janeiro for this summer’s Olympic Games began about two decades ago, when then six-year-old Gray began wrestling against boys in local youth tournaments.
She ended up winning the title in the six-and-under division of the Western Suburban Wrestling League that season—the first indication of her raw wrestling skills.“When those lights are on—and on the biggest stages—she steps up and performs,” says George Gray, Adeline’s dad and 31-year veteran of the Denver Police Department, who recognized his daughter’s grappling abilities at a young age. “I don’t know how you bottle that or teach that—it’s just a unique, innate ability that she has.”
Now, the 25-year-old wrestler is ranked No. 1 in the world in her weight class of 75 kg (165 lbs.) and is the heavy favorite to become the United States’ first female Olympic wrestling champion. She already boasts a lengthy and impressive resume—three-time World Champion, three-time U.S. Open champion, and Pan American Games champion, to name a few—and she’s currently riding a 37-match winning streak. She has, for the last few years, looked utterly unstoppable on the mat as she heads into Rio.
Gray’s journey to Olympic immortality—which you can follow in detail over the coming months on Gray’s social media accounts (@adelinegray) and through #GrayToGold—is rooted in the very city where she got her start, as well as through the people who encouraged her to push the envelope in a male-dominated sport. “I had a lot more support than I did pushback about me stepping on the mat and wanting to compete with the boys,” Gray says. “People heard about me wrestling and wanted to come watch and support me in what I was doing.”
Gray turned plenty of heads during her time at Bear Creek High School, where she tallied 67 wins, including 35 by pin. As a senior, she was invited to train at the U.S. Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Mich.. She won the 2008 Junior World Championship and was named the 2009 ASICS High School Wrestler of the Year. Gray says the move to Michigan—and the disruption of her normal high school life—was trying but ultimately worth it because it helped her transition from the folkstyle wrestling common at the high school and collegiate level to the freestyle wrestling seen in international competition. “It was a tough decision—in the grand scheme of things, people are like, ‘Who cares, you lost one year of high school?’” she says. “But in that moment, it was a big deal. I had to leave my baby sister, and we were supposed to do our last year of high school together. I couldn’t see all my friends who I was supposed to go to prom with—I had to miss out on all that. But I did learn how to wrestle freestyle.”
Even though Gray hasn’t lost an international match for the last two years—she earned a spot on Team USA’s six-woman roster by winning her final qualifying contest in just 65 seconds—her path to the Olympics wasn’t without challenges. At the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, Gray reached the finals in the 63 kg (138 lbs.) weight class but was defeated soundly by favorite Elena Pirozhkova. The experience allowed Gray to travel to London as an alternate and made her even more determined to make the Olympic team in 2016.
At her coaches’ request, Gray moved up a weight class to 75 kg after London. Gray says she was hesitant at first, but once she started seeing results—and realized she didn’t have to worry about cutting weight—she was sold. “It’s been an awesome transition,” says Gray, whose signature move is the leg lace. “I really owe it to my coaches for seeing the potential of me fitting into this weight class and having some dominance in it.”
Despite being a wrestling wunderkind and a homegrown talent who has dominated the sport since moving up to heavyweight, Gray says the most important aspect of her pursuit of Olympic glory is the message she sends to young American girls. “My focus is on advocating for women to get into sports and seeing how much it can really change people’s lives,” says Gray, who recently graduated from DeVry University with a degree in business. “I’m also focused on inspiring young girls to dream bigger—so right now, I’m going out, marketing myself, and getting the world to hear my story and hear about the powerful dream that has pushed me in my life.”
If Gray makes Olympic history by winning gold in August—the U.S. team has won one silver and three bronze medals since women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport in 2004—the triumph would only bolster her wider goals. “It’s so important to inspire the next generation of girls—it’s not just important for women, but for our entire society,” Gray says. “We need that women’s equality, and we need to have those young girls be dreaming just as big as those young boys are about their athletic role models.”