By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. women's wrestling needs a leading lady to inspire young girls to embrace the sport, says three-time world champion Adeline Gray, who intends to play that role at the Rio Olympics.
Gray, who missed making the U.S. team for the 2012 London Games, sees herself becoming the first American woman ever to claim Olympic wrestling gold.
"I think it’s very important for the United States to come home with a gold medal this year. We don’t have an Olympic gold medalist for Team USA for women’s freestyle wrestling and we need that," the 25-year-old Gray told Reuters.
The heavyweight (75kg/165 pounds) from Colorado plans to take care of that milestone herself.
"Winning Olympic gold is something I’ve dreamt about for a very long time," she said on a New York Athletic Club rooftop terrace overlooking leafy Central Park.
"But there is a bigger picture to it - the idea that young girls need those role models, and they need that opportunity to dream about somebody special.
"And dream about someone who’s life is going really well and that’s going to be me, standing on top of that podium getting to live this fabulous life that wrestling has presented to me."
Gray, who won world titles in 2012, 2014 and 2015, is also on a high off the mat, having just earned a business degree from DeVry University through a program with Team USA that enables athletes to balance training demands with their studies.
"When I was growing up I didn’t even know other girls wrestled. Then I realized there are world championships and Olympics and so many opportunities," she said. "I now have my degree and that happened through wrestling.
"We need to show girls how wonderful my life is, how amazing the opportunities are. I've been to over 20 countries and we need that image."
The 5-foot-10 (1.78 m) Gray, who wrestles in pig tails, was introduced to wrestling as a hyperactive six-year-old by her father, a Denver police officer.
Now the effervescent Rocky Mountain woman has the chance to be one of the U.S. stars at the Rio Games and inspire young girls to take up the sport.
"Girls just need to know this is an option, this is a sport that they can get into," enthused Gray. "That you can be strong and beautiful and powerful and have your femininity still be a part of you.
"I just want to make sure young girls don’t brush of this sport because it looks hard or dirty. It’s an awesome sport, it’s a beautiful sport. It teaches you so much about yourself...it just transfers to life so easily."
Wrestling and training, of course, are hard work.
Gray, who has a current 37-match winning streak, typically puts in a pair of two-hour workouts on the mat each day, plus weight work in the gym and cardio workouts thrown in.
"But I'm trying to lessen the cardio so I can stay in my weight class," said Gray, who has the opposite problem of most concerned with diet as she struggles to keep her weight up.
"So I don’t have to suffer through too many cardio workouts. I do about three a week."
Gray maintains her impressive power with weights in the gym.
"I lift a lot of weight," Gray said. "I don’t do traditional squats or bench press. We do a hip thrust, and I got up to 180 kilos (almost 400 pounds). "I can move some serious weight."
She may also be moving some merchandise should she triumph in Rio as she has had T-shirts made up that say "Gray to Gold" and longs to have a wrestling shoe marketed with her name.
Gray said she was unconcerned about health scares in Rio and expects "a great party afterwards".
As for the future, Gray said her business degree has given her a "security blanket".
"When I am done with wrestling, I have that degree and can go into the world and know my entire life doesn’t depend on my body."
(Editing by Steve Keating.)