Adeline Gray started wrestling when she was only six years old. Twenty-four years later, she’s won five gold medals at world championships and is taking home a silver medal in the women’s freestyle 76 kg event at the Tokyo Olympics.
Gray has been a part of the wrestling world for so long that she’s been able to see where it’s grown over the years, and where it hasn’t. She’s especially passionate about making the sport more accessible to girls. Although she says wrestling has made strides in this area — when she started competing, she didn't have access to a uniform designed to fit a woman’s body — she also says that women’s wrestling still doesn’t get its fair share of attention or investment dollars. “Sports is a place where [women] can find their voice, feel confident in their bodies, and realize that they could be strong or be whatever they want to be,” Gray says. And for now, she’s leading by example.
Refinery29: What’s it like to be competing at the Tokyo Olympics after the past year?
Adeline Gray: “It’s nice to be able to finally focus on something I know how to do. Also, there's a piece of me that’s excited about just being around people again and getting to be in an environment where there are other athletes who've gone through those same struggles as me.”
“It was very hard. I was worried for my teammates. I was living in the dorms at the Olympic and Paralympic training center in Colorado Springs and they closed this facility. And so I was homeless for a second. Part of me was worried about the Olympics. Part of me was just worried about: Where am I going to sleep tomorrow night? Am I moving back in with my parents? Do I get a house? Thankfully, everything worked out and I had a place to live, but it was really chaotic and scary. [Also,] I make money off of winning tournaments and there were zero tournaments. And so that's a massive hit [and] financial burden. Some positive things happened; I got to have my baby sister as my lockdown partner. But it was a hit on me, emotionally and physically.”
“The piece of advice I’ve heard is that motivation is like brushing your teeth. Just ‘cause you did it yesterday, it doesn't mean you can't do it tonight or tomorrow and the next day. It’s about consistency.
“My team has been really motivating for me because we go through highs and lows — we win tournaments and we lose tournaments and then continue to move forward. So, my advice would be to find some of those people in your own life who you can be inspired by. Unfollow people who don't make you feel good, and instead follow people who make you want to have more education, better habits, and better relationships.”
You've talked before about sexism in your industry, and how wrestling is often seen as a male-dominated sport or it's very sexualized. What has improved and what hasn’t?
“I'll start with the improvements. When I first got into the sport, there were simple things: I didn't have a uniform that was made for a woman's body. And so now we have technology and companies that are stepping up and making uniforms that fit me and my body and my different needs as a female athlete. That's happened. There's also just more women doing this and we have more advocates on our side. There are more coaches who are willing to coach women. We have more opportunities and we're getting towards equal pay. But we're not at equal opportunities yet.
“We just don't have as many women who wrestle yet. There's not as many wrestling competitions or as many teams. There's not as many camps or duals. There are some great organizations out there trying. Freestyle wrestling is an emerging sport status in the D1 level now. But we really need to get enough investment dollars to keep women in the sport. And it's a cultural shift. We lose so many young women at the puberty age. Some of it's just access to equipment, knowing when to get a sports bra, knowing when to wear a tampon. There's just some basic questions that I, as a female, was lucky enough to find some role models I could talk to about those issues and not have them be a reason why I couldn't wrestle.
“I know there's young women who gravitate away from sports and their surrounding support systems don't encourage them to go back. With men, the same number question whether they should be in sports, but the people around them say, ‘Oh no, try out one more year.’ They're encouraged. We need to acknowledge that and encourage our young women to feel inspired and feel powerful.”
Does this imbalance make it harder for the young women who do stay in the sport?
“I grew up wrestling boys on my wrestling team and — although there are a few teams out there that have full wrestling teams where they're able to train and compete with other women — most of the country's still girls wrestling boys. And there is a piece of it where I think women very often get both over-sexualized and under-sexualized. For some reason, we are very okay with two boys going out there and wrestling. But when it becomes mixed gender, people start to get a little bit pervy and weird about it. I never really understood it because it was normal. I grew up wrestling guys. It was just what I did all the time. And so every time I stepped on the mat, I asked that young man to treat me as an athlete. And we're still fighting for that right. We're kind of still fighting to be out of this box of femininity. We're only supposed to do certain things. We're not supposed to be aggressive. We're not supposed to be strong. But we're breaking through some of those barriers.”
Something about wrestling that’s unique is it’s just you and one other person out there. You’ll be on Team USA, but it’s also pretty individual. Is that scary? Do you like it?
“Individual sports are so often overlooked and I have thrived being an individual sport athlete. I still get to build those relationships with people on my team, but they’re not out there on the mat with me. I was on a lot of team sports [growing up] and I just remember feeling a little more aggressive than my friends. I just felt like I needed a bit more autonomy. And wrestling provided that for me. And so I would say to young women, to go out and try some individual sports and see if there's something they can fall in love with. Because there's a lot to learn about yourself from this. You go out there and, win or lose, it's on you. There’s power in that. It helped show me just how strong I could be.”
This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.
To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. The Tokyo Olympics begin July 23rd on NBC.