The list of amazing athletes born or based in Colorado is impressive. Winter sports standouts who lived here during the height of their fame include alpine skiers Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin, as well as snowboarder Red Gerard and many others. And the state also has a proud legacy of incredible swimmers, thanks to the likes of Amy Van Dyken and Missy Franklin.
Adeline Gray absolutely deserves to be in such august company: She's among America's best hopes to bring home a gold medal at the upcoming Summer Olympics, scheduled to get under way on July 23 in Tokyo following a year-long delay necessitated by the rise of COVID-19. But even though the thirty-year-old is a native Coloradan who competed in high school sports throughout the Denver area and currently resides in Colorado Springs, home of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center, many hard-core sports fans in this state have never heard of her.
Why not? Her specialty is wrestling.
"I'm not in a pretty sport," Gray acknowledges. "And wrestling isn't on the radar when it comes to pro sports."
If it were, Gray would already be a coast-to-coast celebrity. She began placing in major competitions back in 2006; by 2008, she was the junior world champion. Four years later, she served as an alternate for the U.S. women's wrestling team at the 2012 Olympics, and while she made the squad but finished outside the medal range at the 2016 games, her record in other national and international competitions is astonishing.
She's the sole U.S. woman wrestler to win world titles at the junior, university and senior levels, and is the only American wrestler, male or female, to have nabbed the senior world crown five times. Moreover, she's one of only two U.S. women wrestlers to score back-to-back world championships, and unlike Tricia Saunders, who came out on top in 1998 and 1999, Gray has done it twice, in 2014-2015 and again in 2018-2019. She was also the Senior Nationals champ in 2020 and won the U.S. Olympic Team trials for 2021 in the heavyweight category: 76 kilos, or around 167 pounds.
Nonetheless, Gray remains one of Colorado sports' best-kept secrets.
"Remember the exhibit at the Denver airport talking about some of the greatest athletes to come out of Colorado?" Gray asks. "I was seventh."
She's not complaining, though. "There are so many women from Colorado who've been badasses and had amazing careers," she notes. But her parents, Donna and George Gray, who live in Littleton, felt differently about their daughter's placement in the display. "They thought, 'This is bullshit,'" she admits, laughing.
The upcoming Olympics, followed by the 2021 World Wrestling Championships, slated to take place in Oslo, Norway, in October, could definitely move her up in this state's rankings. But for Gray, that's only part of the picture. She's also interested in inspiring the next generation of Colorado athletes.
"I'm hoping to change the narrative," she says. "With women's wrestling getting sanctioned at the high school level this past year [by the Colorado High School Activities Association], I want to show that women can play any sport they want and be dominant — and make history."
"I didn't really pick wrestling," says Gray. "I feel like it kind of picked me."
It was only natural, given her background.
"She was always a very active child," Donna Gray says. "Even as a baby, we did those aqua classes, and she did dance, swimming, tumbling — and she started playing soccer when she was four. But I come from a family of wrestlers. I have three brothers, and two of them wrestled in high school and one wrestled in college — and my brother Paul coached at South Suburban. And Adeline's father, George, wrestled in high school, too."
George, who works as a Denver police officer, began teaching Adeline the sport when she was six. "They had a juniors' program in the gym at Bear Creek High School where they'd bring in the kids and play games and wrestle — and the dads would help," Donna remembers. "The head coach would show everybody a move, and then they'd break up into groups, and the parents would oversee the moves. George would work with Adeline and another kid, and Adeline was a natural. In her first match, she was pinned, and so her goal in the next match was to not be pinned — and she wasn't. Before long, she was the top contender."
There was only one rub. During the late 1990s, when Adeline was getting her start, women's wrestling wasn't much of a thing. So few girls were competing back then that she could usually only grapple with boys — and not all of them were thrilled by the idea.
"Some boys wouldn't wrestle her because she was a girl," Donna recalls. "It would be very discouraging, because most of them wouldn't even tell her. They just wouldn't show up."
Those who did quickly learned that an easy victory wasn't in the offing. Donna says she remembers "sitting on a bench at this gym in Denver and hearing a parent say, 'Finally, my kid can win a match. He's going against a girl.'"
That prediction was incorrect: Gray won.
Women's wrestling didn't become an Olympic sport until 2004, so when she was in grade school, Gray wasn't dreaming about standing on the medal stand as the national anthem played. In fact, at age seven, she traded the first-place ribbon she'd won at a tournament with a boy who'd finished back in the pack because she liked the color of his better. (It was purple.) "Oh, her dad threw a fit," Donna recalls.
Wrestling eventually became Gray's top sporting priority, and she kept getting better and better. She competed on the boys' team at Bear Creek during her first year of high school, after which she transferred to Chatfield High School. She has good memories of her teammates at both institutions, but she did encounter a fragile ego or two among competitors and their families.
"One student who chose to forfeit against me was a JV wrestler, and I was a varsity wrestler," Gray says. "He got thrown into varsity, and I would have won, because I was a better athlete. But he did compete against a first-year girl wrestler later on that year. And there was one person whose grandmother said, 'I'm not going to talk to you if you wrestle a girl.'"
Such attitudes were the exception, not the rule, however. "I had a handful of matches those kinds of things happened in, but it was by no means the focus," Gray remembers. "It may have happened two weekends in a row, but then it wouldn't happen for the next six weeks — and out of forty or fifty matches in a year, there may have only been five where there was an issue. The majority of those young men and coaches and parents treated me as an athlete, and whether I won or lost, I got the opportunity to test my skills against them — and that's all I asked for when I was growing up."
True, she recalls, "there were a few situations where the athletes didn't want to wrestle me, or their parents didn't want them to wrestle me, because I was a female — and I didn't really understand it. I worked hard as an athlete, and I wanted the opportunity to do this sport just like boys who wrestled did. Women should have the opportunity to try hard things and figure out their strengths and weaknesses and capitalize where they can to make gains in the sport. But I don't have hard feelings about those few individuals who didn't end up wrestling me. I had a great experience competing against boys and the few women who came in."
Still, these incidents were examples of "the discrimination piece I saw," she continues. "I wanted to go out and wrestle hard against high-level competition, and the only option a lot of the time was to wrestle against a boy — and when an athlete doesn't want to lose to a girl, that trickles down to our entire society. It's kind of a microcosm of what our world looks like: You see how you feel about the equality of women when your eight-year-old is going up against a girl. I think it's a good gut check for people to move forward with acceptance of women who are strong and powerful — words we've seen as masculine in the past."
As Gray was getting more serious about wrestling, she learned about "a junior program for the Olympics in Michigan," as her mother remembers it. "She would be able to live on the campus of Marquette and train all the time." But Donna refused to give her daughter the go-ahead to attend until Gray's senior year, "when we decided she was old enough to make her own decisions."
The program was designed to allow participants to complete their academic requirements in Michigan and still receive a degree from their hometown high school — but Chatfield wouldn't go along. Fortunately, Bear Creek had no such qualms and allowed her to graduate from there, even though Gray hadn't attended since she was a freshman — which Donna sees as "poetic."
Meanwhile, in Michigan, Gray was introduced to a higher level of athleticism than she'd experienced to date.
"They had an all-women's team with the best women from areas all over the country, like Helen Maroulis, who became an Olympic champion [she won gold in 2016] and Erin Golston, who's a longstanding national team member," she says. "It got me used to two-a-day practices and training that was a lot more intense, and I remember looking around and thinking, 'I'm actually pretty good at this.' After I took fifth in the world, I thought, 'I can do more than just compete with these women. I can beat them.' And that set the tone for my career."
There have been plenty of ups and downs since then.
"I had a big injury in 2010 that forced me to sit out that year," she recounts. "But when I came back in 2011, I won bronze, and then gold in 2012. Unfortunately, I didn't make the Olympics in 2012 because there were limited spots that year, even though I was number one in my weight class. But I did have a world championship that year, and then I changed my weight class. After I moved up to the heavyweight spot, I took a bronze and four worlds. I won back-to-back worlds twice, which was awesome."
Between these accomplishments, Gray pursued her higher education. She earned a bachelor's degree in business project management from DeVry University in 2016 and a master's degree in the same area from DeVry's Keller Graduate School last year; the funding was a perk of her Olympic commitment. And she also discovered the love of her life, Damaris Sanders, a member of the U.S. Army.
"Adeline met Damaris in Colorado Springs at a mutual friend's party in 2013," Donna recalls. "She didn't want to go, and was in sweats and a T-shirt and had just gotten out of practice: no shower. They hit it off immediately, but she was leaving the next day on an international tournament. Two weeks later, they went out to dinner and continued to date even when Damaris got deployed [to Iraq]. Their next date was a Nuggets game with us. Her dad had four tickets, and she wanted us to give them to her, but we said no. It's a family joke that boyfriends need to go out with the girl's parents right away."
Damaris and Adeline married in 2017, and the original plan called for Gray to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, after which the couple would start a family. But then they encountered a significant obstacle.
A global pandemic.
As a sport, wrestling absolutely defies social distancing — and moving the Tokyo games from 2020 to 2021 didn't erase all the complications. Gray had been living at the Olympics training center in the Springs, her home since her time in Michigan, but after COVID-19 struck, the resident athletes had to leave.
"The training environment in Colorado has been very strict," says Gray, who temporarily relocated to Georgia with Sanders. "Things would shut down, and it was frustrating not to have access to a weight room at times. Then things would open back up, but without gyms and training partners."
Fortunately, this last difficulty had an in-house solution. The Gray family is a legitimate sisterhood, with Adeline joined by siblings Izabella, Gabriella and Geneva, who "is a soccer player, but she's also a wrestler," says Donna. "And since she was living in Georgia, too, it was perfect. The training was supposed to be a three-month thing, but it's gone on for over a year."
"One of my issues is that I'm in the highest weight class, so I don't have a lot of training partners who are bigger than me," Gray explains. "But my sister is a little bit bigger than me, which is perfect. I trained with her in previous years and enjoyed the experience of getting to move somebody who's closer to my size, so I can really put some work in. Wrestling is a very give-and-take sport. If I take you down two times, you take me down two times — and wear and tear builds muscle. So bringing my little sister in and having her wrestle me is good for the long-term health of my body."
She concedes with a chuckle that "it may not be good for the long-term health of her body, but it's great to have my best friend with me all the time. I'm so thankful that she was able to put her career goals on pause and help me train safely. When the pandemic started, there were so many questions: We were asking ourselves how we could wrestle with all of it happening. But we felt very safe with each other, and I was still able to get some reps in and train and make some gains even though we didn't have access to the equipment we're used to. Plus, I love having her around. She makes me happy, so it's great."
A baby is on the agenda after the Olympics and the world championship in Norway, but Gray has no plans to retire. "A few Team USA athletes have shared their stories about how their pregnancies have gone and how they've transitioned out of and back into sport," she says. "And there are so many great role models who've done it: Allyson Felix, Serena Williams, Katherine Shai. There are women all over who've shown that just because they've started a family doesn't mean they have to be done with sports."
Granted, she adds, "pregnancy is a traumatic event. Your body goes through changes, and to be an elite athlete and go back to full fitness after that is hard. You can't micromanage pregnancy, and health has to come first. So I'm going into next year with that open mindset. Hopefully I can go to the world championships and make some more history — there's never been a six-time world champion — and bring home an Olympic title. There are big things in front of us."
Other goals include raising the profile of women's wrestling. Gray is active on social media, with accounts on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, as well as a YouTube channel called "Wrestle Like a Girl." She considers all of these pursuits to be professional obligations. "This is my job and my career," she says. "It's awesome when companies step up and sponsor me, and I love getting more followers and getting people excited about this niche sport and the fact that I'm an elite athlete."
She's also a trendsetter, having established an endorsement benchmark by way of the Adeline Gray Aggressors, a wrestling shoe manufactured by ASICS. She's the first female wrestler to have a signature shoe.
More girls in Colorado will need such footwear because of the Colorado High School Activities Association's decision to sanction female wrestling at the high school level. Adam Bright, the CHSAA assistant commissioner who oversees wrestling, describes Gray's field as "one of the fastest-growing sports in the country," and that's true in Colorado, too. The 2020-2021 season marked the official start of competition after two years as a pilot program, and despite COVID-19, 69 schools across the state took part. Bright expects that number to grow by ten or more schools as of the fall.
Bright is equally upbeat about Gray herself. "I think she puts a good face on the sport for our state," he says. "She's someone our entire population of wrestlers — not just female wrestlers, but male wrestlers, too — can get behind and cheer on."
Gray would like nothing better. "Colorado is an oversaturated market because it's such a great sports state: multiple pro teams and the Olympic training center, which brings high-level athletes from across the country," she acknowledges. "But to get my education paid for and travel the world with my family is so much fun. I hope people can watch this local woman at the Olympics — and I hope I can be part of the conversation about great athletes from Colorado."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.