San Diego

‘It Was Surreal': U.S. Wrestling Coach, Mother of Three on Historic Women's Wrestling Win

U.S. wrestler Helen Maroulis won the first gold medal in women's wrestling for the U.S.

A U.S. Wrestling Coach and El Cajon mother of three stood proudly on the sidelines Thursday as American wrestler Helen Maroulis won gold, a historic win for the country. 

"It was an incredible day for us, as you said, we made history in women's wrestling," said Afsoon Johnston, the U.S. women's wrestling freestyle coach. "For me personally it was so surreal to see this day happen and to be a part of it."

Maroulis, 24, defeated Japan's Saori Yoshida in the women's 53kg division final 4-1. The win marked the first time an American woman has taken home a gold in the sport. 

"It was unreal," she told NBC 7 San Diego. 

But the win holds special significance for Johnston, who, in part, helped pave the way for women wrestlers in her own career when her family moved to California decades ago. 

In 1984, Afsoon's parents came to San Jose seeking political asylum. In Northern California, she learned English and pursued the all-American dream as a cheerleader.

But at Independence High School, a school known for its state championships in wrestling, cheerleaders doubled as stat girls. 

"When I started keeping stats for the wrestling team, I thought I know this team, I know this technique and I can beat the current 98-pounder out there," she said.

The coach said he legally couldn't stop her, but wanted to talk to her father. 

"'I don't think your father is going to want you wrestling boys,'" she recalled. "So he called my dad and my dad said, 'This is great, of course she can wrestle.'"

Not only did Afsoon beat the 98-pounder, she then went on to wrestle all four years. She finished with a winning record after competing against only men.

At UC Davis, she became one of the first official female NCAA wrestlers and went on to win the first-ever world medal for the U.S. team.

Afsoon was born in Tehran, Iran. Wrestling is the national sport in Iran, as long as you're a man. 

But her father, a progressive thinker and champion wrestler himself, only had one child and so she would follow in his path.

"I think my father had always wanted to pass on the wrestling to his son, and of course he ended up never having a son, and looking at me, I was his only hope to continue the sport in the family," she said.

8-16-16-Afsoon Johnston-2
Courtesy of Afsoon Johnston
In this photo, a younger Afsoon Johnston can be seen wrestling.

Afsoon's daughters haven't followed in their mother's footsteps yet - all three of her children play club soccer.

In a live interview with NBC 7 Thursday, Afsoon thanked her daughters for waiting patiently as she helped in Rio. 

"Aiden, Sammy and Layla, thank you so much for putting up and not having mommy at home, but I had a job to do and I accomplished it today," she said.

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