Wrestler Adeline Gray Seeks Her Record Seventh World Title, First As A Mom

by Lynn Rutherford

Adeline Gray celebrates defeating Yasemin Adar of Turkey during the women's freestyle 76 kg. quarterfinals at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 1, 2021 in Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Getty Images)

It’s her sixth day in Belgrade, Serbia, and Adeline Gray has a lot on her mind.

History is on the line. The 32-year-old athlete is aiming for a seventh world title, a record for a U.S. wrestler. A top-five finish would qualify Team USA for an entrant in her 76 kg. weight class at the Olympic Games Paris 2024. There is also a personal legacy to consider: Gray has not lost a match at the world championships since 2013. She won bronze that year.

But first things first. Her husband, Damaris Sanders, and mother, Donna, are arriving the following day, after a 13-hour flight from Los Angeles. They’re bringing Gray and Sanders’ 14-month-old twins, and Adeline is crossing her fingers that her babies will sleep through most of the flight.

“(Team USA) came to Serbia about six days ago for acclimation camp, so I’ve spent that time away from them,” Gray told last week. “I feel so bad I can’t help them with their long trip, but I have faith they’re going to be okay.”

Spoiler alert: everyone arrived safe and sound.

As for history, Gray doesn’t downplay it, exactly. It’s just that she thinks the most meaningful part about potentially winning a seventh world gold would be doing it as a mother of a young son and daughter.

“History? I think it’s just a byproduct of being in the position I am as an older athlete, as an experienced athlete,” she said. “(Accumulating) titles happens after so many years of competing.

“I think there’s a little bit more purpose I have, with the opportunity to go out there as a mom, representing a group of women with multiple (babies), and parents in general,” she added. “Representing the joyful moments of having kids and also the hardships that come with raising a family.”

In addition to the many circumstances of new motherhood — breastfeeding, lack of sleep, finding the time and space to work out — Gray had a complication: she tore an abdominal whilst delivering “two big, healthy babies.”

Getting back into shape and gauging how much she could do each day wasn’t the biggest challenge for her. Instead, the waiting was the hardest part.

“Just having to sit and rest, that was really hard,” she said. “I felt like I was getting left behind. I felt like I had lost control about getting back (in time) for Olympics.”

Adeline Gray (right) competes against Yasemin Adar of Turkey (left) during the women's freestyle 76 kg. quarterfinals at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 1, 2021 in Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Getty Images)

Missing out on the Paris Games, after a heartbreaking loss in the finals to Germany’s Aline Rotter-Focken in Tokyo, was hard to accept. So, Gray pressed on. She gave birth last July and wasn’t medically cleared to resume workouts until January. Even then, she says, it was only “here and there.” She didn’t start ramping up her lifting until February or March.

“This tear can be really hard to heal from,” Gray said. “Even though it’s been a full year, I only have a couple of months when my body has felt like it’s mine.”

By the time the 2023 U.S. Open Wrestling Championships rolled around in late April in Las Vegas, Gray said she was wrestling at about 50 percent of capacity. She had built back her offense, but she hadn’t done enough work on her defense.

“I was not confident going into nationals,” Gray said. “I had told my family, ‘Oh, I don’t think I’m going to compete. Don’t buy tickets,’ and then at the last minute, we kind of decided I would try.”

Sanders, a U.S. Army major, believed his wife belonged back on the mat in Las Vegas. He urged her to continue, reasoning that they did not want any later regrets if Gray didn’t try to make her way back to worlds, especially with Paris in the offing.

“My husband never once doubted that we could get back to where we were,” she said. “I was the one who questioned whether it was worth it – if it was the path we wanted to take as a family. He had the perspective that, yes, there are going to be uncomfortable moments, and we will hire people when we need to, we will use family support when we need to.”

He was right, but the path was longer than they had hoped. Gray placed second in Las Vegas, losing in the final to up-and-coming 19-year-old Kennedy Blades. Gray earned her spot on the world team by winning her next two events: the World Team Trials Challenge Tournament in May, followed by Final X in June, where she defeated Blades.

“It’s been a pretty exciting timeline we’ve been able to create,” she said.

Adeline Gray celebrates her win over Kennedy Blades after the women's 76 kg. bout at the 2023 Beat the Streets Final X Wrestling event on June 10, 2023 in Newark, N.J. (Photo by Getty Images)

Gray stresses how thankful she is for her family, her health and the opportunities that come with competing for Team USA. Still, since giving birth to her twins, the joy has been mingled with stressful moments. For one, Sanders was posted to a new base near San Pedro, California, just when Gray was preparing to compete at the World Team Trials.

“So, we packed up and moved,” Gray said. “At first, we had one crib and two babies, so one baby was sleeping on a mattress on the floor, the other was in a crib. Thankfully, they both slept fine. At first, it wasn’t the most adorable baby room, by any means.”

Since Sanders works during the day, Gray’s mom pitched in with childcare, allowing Adeline to train and travel to competitions.

“We made it work,” Gray said.

And now that everyone is safe and sound in Belgrade, how does Gray like her chances for a seventh gold?

“I’m definitely more confident than I was, a couple of months ago,” she said. “Back then, I was still questioning if I was going to be strong enough, big enough. prepared enough for it. (Team USA) had a couple of training camps that really helped me to kind of feel ready.

“I also think there's been some growth and strength gains that have happened, and that is something that's been really cool to experience.”

A seventh title is by no means assured. Gray, who competes on Tuesday and Wednesday, will be challenged by wrestlers – including four-time world medalist Epp Mae of Estonia and 2022 world silver medalist Samar Amer of Egypt. But the American likes her chances.

“I’m still Adeline Gray, someone who has been undefeated at the world championships since 2013, five titles ago,” she said. “That’s not to say I didn’t have tough matches against amazing, powerful women, doing everything they can to try to beat me.

“I think I’m going in with that confidence that I can do well again because I’m experienced and knowledgeable about the sport. I’ve done everything I can to make myself as ready as possible. … I don’t know that there is anyone who can beat me, but I’m excited to go out there and test that.”

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