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Women’s Wrestling : Winning The Gold with Helen Maroulis
For those of you who figured out who we have with us, it is an absolute pleasure to have Helen joining us. Helen, thank you so much.
Thank you, Jon, for having me.
First of all, give the audience your full name, your title, all that.
My name is Helen Maroulis. I’m the 2016 Olympic champion in Women’s Wrestling. I have been wrestling for nineteen years.
For those of you who don’t realize what she means by Olympic champion in wrestling, it means that she was in the number one spot on the podium receiving a gold and representing our country mostly through years of pain and suffering in order to accomplish it. Here’s the wildest part, you’re the first woman in US history to win a gold.
That was quite an experience. Women’s wrestling has been in the Olympics since 2004 and we’ve had medalists every year. We’ve had amazing women make it to the finals, but it didn’t happen until 2016, so it’s been exciting to finally get that.
It didn’t happen. I like how you’re completely disassociated from that happening. I have to say it’s so humbling to meet a woman. I’m 5’10”, I’m pretty fit. I work out probably five to six days a week, but there is no question you at 5’3” on your worst day will still like take me down and choke me out in three seconds. It’s incredibly humbling.
I hope so. I’m supposed to be good at what I do.
You’re literally the best in the world. When people discover what you’ve accomplished, what do they most commonly ask you or what are they curious about?
When they discover what I accomplished or that I wrestle? Those two are different. I spent the last nineteen years of my life and career getting a variety of different responses. I remember being in a sauna cutting weight before World Championships and it’s a coed public sauna and I’m suited up in plastics. There’s some old man and he’s like, “Are you doing a sport?” I’m like, “I’m making weight.” “What do you do?” “I wrestle,” and he’s like, “Mud-wrestling? That’s got to be fun. I’d love to try that with you.”
How old was this guy?
He is a couple of decades older, and then there are some people that don’t know it’s a sport which is fine. It’s not on mainstream media and my goal is to bring it there. For the most part, people are surprised or people think it’s awesome. They’re like, “What? You wrestle? That’s cool.” Then obviously in the last year and a half to two years, when they ask if I’ve gone to the Olympics or how I’ve done, they get surprised and everyone in the US is always going to be excited about a gold medal. It’s such a cool experience and they know that you represent your country when you do that, so everyone is supportive regardless of what sport you do, so that’s been cool. I think it’s helped wrestling.
I couldn’t be more in awe of your accomplishment. I can’t imagine the levels of pain and dedication that you have to have in order to clock in the time necessary to do what you do regardless of what talents you have.
I could say the same for you. I definitely would not be able to do podcasts and do these crazy influencers dinners and the salon, and all these things. When we love what we do, we will put in the work for it, and when you love it, you don’t count the cost as much.
The difference is that if I didn’t run the dinners, I would never earn an invitation to one. The only reason I’m allowed to hang out with you is because I’m picking up the bill on it.
You created something pretty extraordinary out of it. I wouldn’t be going if I didn’t have a gold medal.
I want to get a sense of what your life is like. You’re a full-time athlete and the only reference that most of us have for that is an NBA or NFL player, maybe tennis, but what’s your life like?
My life has constantly changed in the past couple years. Before Rio, it was sprint and now I’m more in marathon mode. It’s more of a balance between the wrestling and the training, media, but before Rio, I met my coach, he’s this Russian guy that lived in California for twenty years and he has a dream of coaching an Olympic champion. I met him and he’s like, “I don’t have partners, I don’t have a wrestling room. I can’t promise you anything, but I believe I can teach you the skill set you’re lacking. If you want to work with me, come meet me at the beach at 7:30 every day,” and I literally would drive an hour in LA traffic to meet him at the beach and we do these Mr. Miyagi wrestling drills and I’m like, “This is nuts. I don’t even know what I’m doing. I have a gut feeling that this is the right thing to do.” He took us on a trip to Russia.
Tell me about the Mr. Miyagi wrestling moves.
He would call the beach Mother Nature’s gym and he is like, “You’ve got everything you need.” He would cross in someone’s yard, pulls out a rock, and he’s like, “We’re going to throw rocks,” so we’re throwing rocks on the beach and running in the sand and doing pull-ups on the trees and we’d wrestle on the beach every day. It’s my 58-year-old coach and myself and one other teammate, we trained on the beach, and then before we realized it, I pretty much spent all my time having to wait for his phone call to say, “I found someone that you can drill with today. Meet at this high school at this time.” Sometimes it’s 1:00, sometimes it’s 9:00 AM, sometimes it’s 6:00 PM, and so literally I would never make plans more than a day or two in advance because I don’t know what time my practice is tomorrow. It was everything about wrestling, life got put on hold, and I was on this crazy diet.
What’s your diet?
I ate three ounces of chicken breast, grilled with nothing on it, literally a handful of spinach with nothing on it, no dressing, and then half an avocado four times a day, every single day for a year. Christmas, I remember I went home and my mom and my dad knew I was dieting and they’re like, “We’re going to tell the family you got sick, so you don’t have to be around the food and eat the food,” and I ate my chicken and spinach. It was a crazy year. Obviously this year, Christmas, I ate whatever I wanted, so it’s definitely a different time.
To the winner go the spoils.
I found in my notes from October 10, 2015, I wrote myself a note and I said, “Helen, anytime you want to mess up, ask yourself is it worth a gold medal and what does a gold metal taste like,” and I would read that over and over again anytime I wanted to do something bad.
What does it taste like? Is it pennies?
I can’t even tell you. It tastes awesome because I was smiling a lot. That was such a blur.
You got to work out your cheeks for the first time in a long time.
I was looking forward more to chocolates.
You’re still in it, right? You’re preparing for the next Olympics?
Yeah, in Tokyo in 2020.
I’m assuming it’s easier to find partners to wrestle with?
It’s a lot easier to find partners now, so that is such a blessing.
One of the things I have a morbid curiosity about is the physical strain that Olympians put their body through. You were talking about this thing called rhabdo. Could you tell us a little bit about the crazy things that happened to you? Could you describe it?
I got rhabdo this past summer and ended up in the hospital. You work out so hard that you break your muscles down past the point of repair, and blood seeps out of your muscles and get stuck in your kidneys and then your kidneys struggle to flush it out. Obviously, if you don’t go get IVs and a bunch of treatment, you can die. It’s pretty serious. My levels were high. It took me two to three weeks to recover and I would hold my phone and then when I would want to go put my phone down, I literally had to, with my other arm, straighten my arm out because it would be totally cramped and fatigued.
I remember being in a similar situation after the bull crushed me and my muscles didn’t work, my entire back didn’t function properly. For me to get out of bed, I had to use my legs to pull me out, I’d have to fall on the floor and then I could use my legs to stand up, but I didn’t have the back muscles to sit up.
You’ve had the worse injuries. That’s way worse than anything I’ve had.
Clearly going down your career is not a good idea per se. It sounds like it’s a lot of effort, a lot of uncertainty. Why do you even care about this piece of metal? Why is it so important that that’s the taste?
First, I will disagree that I think this is the greatest endeavor that you could go on is to just try wrestling. It’s an amazing sport that provides so many amazing lessons and qualities to instill so many values. It’s changed my life as a person. When I started wrestling, when I was seven years old, all the other sports I was asked to quit, and so here it was and I finally found the sport where I felt that I fit and I felt I belonged even though to everyone else’s eyes, I was a girl in a male‑dominated sport. There were a lot of challenges with that growing up where they didn’t want me to be on the team or they would try and make me quit, but internally this is the thing that gives me joy. After my first year, my parents came to me, it was 1999 or 1998, and they said, “Women’s wrestling isn’t an Olympic sport and there’s no future for you. There’re no opportunities. There’re no scholarships.
There’s no reason to let you continue wrestling and grow up wresting boys and be in high school and it’s weird, so you have to quit wrestling.” Obviously it’s my parents, so I said, “Okay,” and later that summer they announced that women’s wrestling was going to be added to the Olympics. My parents came back to me and they said, “It’s being added to the Olympics. I’m sure it will be in colleges one day and you can get a scholarship and there could be a future for you, so if you want to do it, you can start again.” I was eight years old at the time and I remember thinking the one thing that I love to do got taken away because there wasn’t this pinnacle, so how could I not try and go for that now because now I was able to do it again. It came down to love for the sport. I never thought that I was good enough to be an Olympian or Olympic caliber or anything. I just loved what I did.
Is that how most of Olympians are do you think, the people that you trained with? Because in the world of people I interact with, there’s this ongoing underlying theme of impostor syndrome, an overwhelming number of people who hold major positions question why they’re the ones that hold them or if they’re good enough or if they’re able to do what’s necessary to make things work. There’s this fundamental impostor syndrome that runs around as if there’re other people in the world that would somehow be much better than these industry leaders. Do Olympians have that?
I don’t know for certain. I don’t have that many in-depth conversations with that many Olympians, but from the ones that I have, I do agree that there is a sense of that, which comes down to some of the same things, the same qualities that can help us get there, once we’re there, we still keep those qualities. If you’re trying to make it to the highest point in your field, in your career, it’s not because you’re like, “I’m better than everyone and I should and I deserve it.” It’s almost like, “I don’t know.” When people ask me, “Are you going to win this tournament?” I always say, “My job is not to predict the future. My job is to create it.”
I don’t ever say before tournament that I’m going to win or I don’t pray for victory or anything like that. I just like to go out there and create. Once you are walking in that victory, it’s pretty amazing that the people that accomplished things, that they do have that personality because it does give them this perspective of realizing. I could’ve wrestled that same Olympic tournament ten times in a row and I might not have one of those matches ten times in a row, but the time that I did do it, I did. I probably don’t have the answer to that.
I’m positive that if I was in your shoes, I would be clearly concerned that I’d lose because I don’t know how to wrestle, but besides that it all seems so overwhelming. Between the cameras, the people, the years of training, the nerves on the day, how did you feel? Were you even aware of any of this stuff?
My journey to the Olympics was very spiritually and faith-based. I would say about a month before the Olympics, I thought I wasn’t going to make weight. I was stuck at about 65 kilos and every week, the doctor nutritionist would say, “We’re going to change this and then you’ll start dropping weight,” or, “Can you take one less bite of this?” or, “Do this,” or, “Add this nutrient or supplement,” we tried everything and it all came down to, “You need to relax, when you relax, you’re going to lose weight.” I’m like, “I have anxiety. I can’t relax. The Olympics start in one month and this is everything I’ve ever wanted and I failed to even make the team in 2012, so I feel this is it. This is my moment and I can’t relax.” I thought I wasn’t going to make weight and I remember one night being devastated and I’m like, “That’s it. I’m done. I’m going to book a ticket to Iceland and peace out. I’m not the girl for this job. I’m going to be the biggest embarrassment at the Olympics.” I gave it to God and He said, “You can fail but you can’t quit,” and so that was my motto going into the Olympics.
By the time that the Olympics came around, I had been doing an hour prayer fast every morning where I was like, “This is the one thing that I can control and I can control my attitude and how I feel this first hour in the morning and all I’m going to do is be grateful and give thanks and be grateful for the journey,” and so that changed my perspective. By the time I competed, I remember what I wrote in my journal the day before, I was like, “I’ve been asking for this gold medal, God, and this is what I’ve wanted my whole life, but what I wanted, I’ve already got. I’m not going to have regret because there’s nothing I would change about this journey. Even if it results in a loss tomorrow, there’s nothing I would change because every decision I made, I made with the intention that this was the best thing from here, this is the right thing to do. I have peace and I have joy and I have love and I have great support and I have made great friendships and relationships out of this experience.” I competed literally free from fear the day of the Olympics, I was happy.
That’s absolutely amazing to get into that frame of mind and that level of appreciation in the face of eighteen years at that point of training, and since the age of eight and to go in there being so at peace is incredible.
You got to capture your thoughts and bring them back. There’s a saying like, “You got to make your thoughts obedient.” I remember competing and they said, “You’re not allowed to use headphones for sponsorship reasons at the Olympics. No one could headphones once they started recording and once the TVs were on you.” I remember being like, “It’s five minutes until I’m up and it takes two seconds for negative thoughts to come in or for a bad thought to come in, and so I’m going to say my mantra in my head over and over and over again so that I don’t give any time for it to even come up.” I remember at one point after I won the semis, I was like, “I’m about to wrestle this legend at the next match. Silver medal is pretty good, awesome,” and then I was like, “Helen, stop, correct that. We’re not going for silver here, go for gold, go for broke.” It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was definitely a fun day.
What’s something that nobody talks about in your industry? I watched Icarus, which is the story about all the Russian athletes who were doping. It seems like to lose a medal to somebody or a match to somebody who’s got 20% advantage of strength because of drug use seems like a pretty devastating experience, especially when you’ve been playing clean.
That is a serious issue. I do think it’s something that’s being talked about though, maybe not always acted on, but it’s definitely talked about in my sport and it definitely happens in wrestling and there’re certain countries where you’re like, “I would bet money that everyone is counting that money.” There are also certain sports where it’s so widely known and accepted. You talk to weightlifters. I feel bad for the weightlifters here in America because they literally do everything and they work so hard and they compete clean, but they know that no matter what, there’s this unfair advantage. The crazy thing about wrestling and it shouldn’t be like this either, but there are wrestlers that will dope and still lose. It’s so sad.
You’re going to destroy yourself and your integrity.
It’s not what sport was created for and it’s not what it’s supposed to represent and it’s unfortunate that that happens.
I remember seeing the documentary and thinking. The guy gained 20% gain in strength in cycling. I assume that when you reach your level, if you can add 2% to yours, that’s a big deal, but 20% percent is insanity.
It totally takes away from the integrity of the sport and it’s horrible that it happens. We have the means for testing so we can definitely test those athletes a lot more. Before and after the Olympics, I got tested more in that year than I ever had in my career which started showing up at your door at 7 AM to drug test you isn’t fun, but I’m like, “This is awesome to know that they go through these measures that if you have a medal or if you’re in the spotlight, you’re going to get tested a lot more rigorously,” and that’s good. Then it’s unfortunate to know that some countries never get tested or they will compete once a year and you wonder, “Where are they the rest of the year then?” I try not to make assumptions and I can only control what I can control, so I can speak towards pushing for better measures to come about, but I wish I could do more.
What’s something completely unexpected about reaching this level of success? I assume it happened overnight. Nobody knew who you were and then the next day, you were the first woman in US history to win an Olympic gold in wrestling.
Pretty often I’m like, “Maybe I wasn’t the right person for the job or to speak better about this feat because it was such an overnight change for me.” What was cool for the teammates and the people that do know me, it was like, “Helen won? It’s possible for any of us to win then.” I remember when I would start to open up to teammates or friends about, “This is what goes on in my head. This is what I think before matches,” and people were like, “You overthink a lot.” When I started working on my sport psych and I trusted to go a certain way with it, it just felt like I need to stay true to myself and it’s not what they would ever teach you in sport psychology, but it’s what I felt was best for me.
After winning, had I lost it, I would have been like, “That was probably wrong,” and then you win and it’s like, “I guess that’s right.” It’s a total 180 mind shift. What is powerful I remember as soon as the buzzer rang and the match ended and I won the Olympics, I remember this instant, my opponent dropped to her knees, she was crying, I dropped to my knees, I was crying. People asked, “Why did you look so surprised? Did you think that you weren’t going to win?” I said, “No, I wrestled to win, but I was so surprised.” My big thing was “God, there is no secret. There is no superpower. Normal people win the Olympics. This is amazing. There’s no secret. Normal people win. I figured it out.”
I love how you refer to yourself as a normal person. Seventeen years of training to get to the Olympics, normal people don’t do that to themselves.
There’re so many athletes I met and they’re incredible. My teammate, Elena Pirozhkova, for example, I got so much wisdom from her. I learned so much from just being around her. I call her the Russian bear. She’s the toughest person I ever met and she made two mistakes and it cost her a medal. What distinguishes us as people, it’s not the medal. It’s nothing, and there’re so many people that I’m like, “You’re this amazing person. You teach me so much,” so I think normal people went because I don’t think the medal changes anything about me from per se my teammates or any of the other girls I competed against. I’ve lost to all of them at some point, so I’m grateful that I won on that day.
I can totally get how world of, “On that day, I happened to be the best,” and on another day, those people that I trained with or those people I competed against could’ve been better, but fortunately it was that one day when they were handing out the golds.
For awhile, I used to say when people would say congratulations and I didn’t know how to own it and I would say, “It was good day to have a good day,” and I stopped saying that because I’m like, “I know I did work hard for this and it did take an immense push mentally and emotionally and physically.” Since being the Olympic champion, I’ve also lost matches. It’s so crazy because before I’d be like, “This person beat the Olympic champion and that’s so crazy,” and then now that I’ve got to be in the role of Olympic champion that got beat, I’m like, “You got to be careful not to put your identity in this,” because again, it was the right day to win. My coach tells me all the time, “You’re not going to be peaked for every tournament,” and learning how to lose teaches you to learn how to win.
I had the pleasure of hosting a medalist in rowing and she gave a talk at one of the events, on one of The Salons, and she said, “I’m a professional loser,” and I’m like, “What do you mean?” She goes, “You see the medal, but do you realize that I spent 99% or whatever, statistically, if you look at all the races I’ve done, it’s something like 90% failure rate.”
That’s a great perspective for her to have that.
All it takes is winning that 10% of the time to become one of the best in the world and it was so eye opening because there are these impressions if somebody who’s not into sports or in sports in general, I know more about Quidditch than I do about wrestling, that you probably never lost a point in a match in your life. In reality, you sucked as a kid and you loved it and kept going and you’re a loser.
I remember one time we were doing a double tour, which means you go to one country and compete, a week later, you’d go to another country and compete, and I had gotten bronze at both. I was upset and I’m not one of those people that I should win everything. It’s just the matches I lost, I felt that I lost to myself. I can be okay with someone being better than me, I just don’t like when I feel like I don’t do my best and the coach came up to me and he’s like, “We can always count on you to lose but come out with a medal, so that’s a pretty good thing because at least you’re pretty consistent with coming up with the medal.”
I was like, “It hurts so bad. I’m known as the girl that loses but at least can come back for the bronze,” but for me, the reason I can come back for the bronze isn’t because I’m good at coming back; it’s because I felt I was good enough to get the gold in that tournament, and I completely didn’t do what I was supposed to do in that match. For me, it’s a lifetime of you’re failing to yourself and you’re trying to figure out like, “How long can I keep going until I figure this out and will I ever figure this out? I hope one day I do.”
What I’m impressed most by in this conversation is your attitude. For the rest of us mere mortals, it seems that you have an incredible mental fortitude to consistently eat that absurd meal with no flavor, to keep training, to continuously grapple with your internal conversations. Do you have any advice? Is there a certain technique you use? You were talking about mantras. Did you learn some meditation or something like that?
One thing I’ve been learning lately is to be aware that I’m aware and to always check my motives. The reason I say that is because it always felt like this uphill climb reaching the Olympics and I felt like I was getting better as a person, I was getting better mentally, and I was improving in all these areas. Once I reached that, I stopped doing the things that made me get there. I would say this past year, I won the World Championships again, but I failed at so many things. If someone asked me to rate how happy I was with the past year with myself, I fell away from a lot of the habits that I had before. It was so hard to stop eating chocolate for breakfast. I’d go meet people, I’d go to events and they would serve us this meal, and I remember they’d be like, “You’re probably not going eat the dessert,” and I’m like, “No, give me the dessert.”
People would say, “You’re a professional athlete. You’re probably so disciplined. You probably wake up so early,” and I’m like, “I have zero discipline right now.” I felt like God taught me like, “Check yourself. You are what you choose and you have to make this choice everyday and don’t think that just because you have the gold medal, the choice is going to make itself.” I’ve seen the best and the worst versions of myself before and after the Olympics. I’m coming to this place now where it’s, “Why am I doing this? What do I want to get out of it? Why?” and the why behind it is defining success that I want to have integrity in this area, I do want to be disciplined. Now it’s not dieting for the sake of cutting twenty kilos. It’s just that I would like to make better choices in my life.
Did you say cutting twenty kilos?
It’s twelve kilos. It was ten the week before the Olympics.
You had to cut ten kilos the week before the Olympics?
That’s 22 pounds?
Yeah. I had everything down to a science. I cut three kilos in an hour the night before and I knew that it’s not something you can just say like, “I want to go and do this.” You have to prepare your body to lose the weight. In every way, shape and form, you have to strategically prepare your body to sweat. You have to train it leading up to sweat more. I would talk to my body like, “Calm down. Do the weight cut. We’re not dying.” My kidneys would start hurting and everything. I would cut three kilos. I never walked around lighter than 59 or 60 the week before, and then I kept praying and praying and trying to relax and not focus on it. Finally I woke up the day before I weigh in, 56.0 kilos and I had to make 53, so I went from 56 to 53.5 in an hour and a half workout at night, and then I slept off the rest and I woke up at 52.9 and I was so happy that I made weight.
One of the things I’m curious about is you are this incredible powerhouse human being but because you were the first female to accomplish this, I assume that carries a certain amount of social weight or probably people view you as a leader within the women’s communities. Have you found that that’s changed your life in some way?
It definitely has changed my life. I was in a bubble, and since winning, I’ve got to go to events where I’ve met women that are the first in their careers and their field as well. I got mentored by Kayla Harrison. She was the first woman to win a gold medal in judo in 2012 and then she repeated it in 2016, and that’s my inspiration now. What’s interesting about the role of being the first is that after my semi-finals match, I remember I walked off. You have a couple hours until the finals and my forearm is always cramped up when I wrestle, so I went to the massage therapist. It’s a good friend and I was like, “Can you rub out my forearms?” and I was sitting there, adrenaline’s coming down, and I was looking up at the ceiling out.
I was like, “Javier, I know I’m going to win the Olympics. It is the first time in my life that I know.” He’s like, “I’ve been telling you that.” I’m like, “No, you don’t understand. I know but I’m not sure if I can handle the responsibility.” Something switched where I felt like what I thought winning meant, I realized there was something more to it and there was a role. I’ve internally struggled to figure out how to best utilize that role and to help girls, to help grow the sport, or just to help. What it comes down to is sharing the behind the scenes, the messy parts. There is a saying I love, “We compare our behind the scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” People only see of me what I show and the more I can show, they’re like, “I struggled with confidence. I struggle with this,” that’s what I hope that will help people, just to share.
I’m incredibly impressed with you every time we talk.
I feel the same about you.
If people want to find out more about you, I know you’re on Instagram because I follow you, but where else? Are you on Twitter? Do you have a blog?
Helen, it has been an absolute privilege having you on. I am in awe of you. I am so impressed with your mental fortitude and how humble you are. It’s been a real privilege, so thank you for coming on.
Thank you for having me. It’s a privilege, the amazing dinners and the people that you’ve introduced me to and this amazing journey. I’m getting to meet people that are incredible in so many different fields. It’s been amazing, so thank you.
It’s been a treat. Listeners, stay tuned because next is the anonymous interview and if you can figure out who it is, you can win an invitation to hang out with people like Helen at The Salon by Influencers.
About Helen Maroulis
At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Helen Maroulis became the first ever American to win a gold medal in women’s freestyle wrestling at the Olympic Games. She wrestled four matches in the preliminaries before defeating Japan’s Saori Yoshida, 4-1, in the Olympic finals. Helen had previously lost to Yoshida twice (2011 and 2012 World Championships) by pin. Yoshida had not lost a World Championships or Olympic match in 16 years. Helen credits God for her victory and the journey. Her mantra on the day of competition was “Christ is in me, I am enough”. She believes God uses wrestling as a tool to shape her character and faith. The devastation from failing to make the 2012 Olympic Team also motivated her these past four years.
Anonymous Guest Interview
For my absolute favorite part, as you all know, the anonymous interview. We have the incredible magic Mike with us, not Channing Tatum, but my friend, Mike, who is absolutely incredible and has done some pretty extraordinary things with his career.
My lips are remarkably like Channing Tatum.
I was going to ask at one point, if you could have anybody play you in a movie, to give the audience understanding of what you look like, so it would be Chan?
I’m a little more Clooney than Chan, but either one.
Ladies everywhere are drooling who this man is and hoping that you’ll signal. Let’s get to the basics, Mike. Where’d you grow up?
I grew up in Southern Connecticut.
Was there a teacher or an incident or something that inspired you to go into the career that you went?
In some ways, all of my teachers who probably at some point discouraged me from doing what wound up being my career.
You were caught playing Game Boy in school and you’re like, “I’m going to make money off of this one day.”
I definitely missed many homework hours to Atari and other early video game systems for sure.
You’ve aged yourself. For the audience who don’t know what Atari is, you might have heard of N64. If you go way further back than N64, there was Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Before that, there was Nintendo, and then before Nintendo, there was an entire gaming system called Atari and there was a series of them and they were essentially the first major home console. You could exchange games and switch them into the system. It was like the biggest, hottest thing in the early ’80s. Now that we know that you’re old, you spent way too many nights playing video games. Did you get some high score or something and you’re like, “This is it. I’m going down this way?
No, but for me, it was always somewhat of a competitive outlet. In that year of gaming, it was you and the machine but at the time there were also these things, just to age myself again called arcades, which if any of your audience have seen nostalgic ‘80s movies about kids, they often went to these arcade places.
In Stranger Things, that’s where they go.
That’s an arcade. There are these things called cabinets and they are upright standing single video game machines that used to put a quarter into to play per player, and that was a competitive environment where people would go in and try to beat each other’s scores. At home it was more of a personal best thing, just got to keep improving in certain games.
It’s not that surprising that you did what you did. Is there a accomplishment in your career that you’re most proud of? I doubt it’s like setting the time run for Mario Brothers or something like that.
Unfortunately, my competitive gaming career did not continue with me being the ultimate player. To distill rather than list a couple of tactical achievements or something like that, probably something that I’m proud of now looking back on it a little bit is being able to turn a couple of my most important personal passion points, sports and video gaming, into a career for myself and for thousands, probably eventually millions of other people.
One of the most amusing things you’ve ever said is that you were able to make geeky kids that were relegated to their parents’ basements and game rooms so cool that girls would want to go on dates with them.
Yes, so cool that they had groupies.
First of all, I applaud you because I wasn’t even good enough video gamer that anybody would care, but I could associate completely with those people and it’s amazing that you were able to give them a platform or a stage to be recognized on. Is there a crazy stunt or dare or bet or something that caused your success at some point?
Two things quickly. One is that a big spark that ignited the idea for the business that I launched was with my best friend. My best friend and I spent a lot of time that summer prior to launching the business, playing video games against each other for money. There was a lot of betting over individual games and that helped us formulate this concept or help generate the idea. Every founder has this story of people telling them their idea was crazy or stupid or whatever, and if you can imagine going back sixteen years in history telling people what we were going to launch, it was a preponderance of, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
I hear it now and I still think it is stupid and I think it’s incredible too. I think it’s stupid because I have this career and the idea of spending any more time playing video games, I feel guilty about it. I’m like, “I could be doing,” but you’ve managed to recontextualize the entire industry into entertainment and career, which is incredible. Don’t get me wrong. I still think it’s stupid and I applaud it just like people look at what I do and they’re like, “That’s absolutely idiotic. Why would you want to spend all of your spare cash feeding other people who can well afford any meals they want in the world,” but I very much applaud you.
We’ve given people quite a few hints on who you are. Just two last questions that we’re going try and go fast paced on. Was there a certain moment or experience that made you feel like, “This is real,” like all of a sudden everything’s changed, you’ve pulled this off and now you can get away with anything?
There were a few. My founder story isn’t like, “I discovered this thing a couple of years ago. We just sold it to Google.” This is a sixteen-year-long crawling on your elbows through glass thing. I would say the first time that I felt like, “This has real legs. It’s a thing. It’s not something fun we’re doing. It’s real business,” was probably when we raised capital the first time. We had to bootstrap the company for almost four years. We luckily had a small business before this and we had a little bit of money to get started on our own, but certainly in the thousands, not millions. It took about four years until we’re able to raise real institutional capital. When that happened, it was a moment of sitting back and saying, “If there is any doubt that this was a business, we have to lose that doubt and start turning it into a business right away.” That was one part of it.
Another one that was a little funnier and referential to a part of this conversation was I remember we did an event at the Meadowlands Convention Center outside of New York City. We had this broadcast tower which was like a second-storey that was built out of rigging that we could stand up on where the cameras were positioned looking at this main arena area. My partner and I were standing there and we were looking down and we had started filming for television special and there’s a camera crew walking around following a couple of these players. I noticed there were six or seven young, early twenties, probably women following the cameras around.
We had already had some women in the system playing that stuff, but these were not people playing. I was like, “What is going on here? I don’t understand what’s happening,” and then my partner stated the obvious which was, “Those are fans following the players around,” and it was only probably a week so later that we had to start hiring security for the players. It related back having video game players have attractive female friends that you would normally see with a professional basketball or football game. That was a big point for me.
Listeners, you have so much to go on here. I am literally floored by the idea of these security guards protecting video gamers. You know how it works. You have between now and the launch of the next episode to figure out who Mike is and if you do, you can win an invitation to The Salon by Influencers and hang out with people like Mike and other industry leaders, so good luck.