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'I feel like I’m living a dream': How Emma Rinehart made history

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Emma Rinehart

Mount Vernon freshman Emma Rinehart during a match earlier this season. Rinehart made history Sunday by becoming Mount Vernon's first female state wrestling qualifier.

MOUNT VERNON – The word most associated with Emma Rinehart is “confidence.”

It’s subdued.

The Mount Vernon freshman is soft-spoken, humble, non-assuming. She brushes off interviews and deflects praise. Her loudest attribute is quite possibly the hot-pink headgear she wears during competitions.

But in order to do what she does – and particularly what she did last weekend – confidence is required. Because barriers aren’t broken without it.

Rinehart made history Sunday by becoming Mount Vernon’s first female state wrestling qualifier. She pinned two opponents to win the 111-pound district title, punching her ticket to Saturday’s girls state tournament at Hilliard Davidson High School.

“It was kind of just like a surreal feeling. I haven’t really wrapped my head around it …” Rinehart said Monday. “I feel like I’m living a dream. I never thought it would happen.”

The Ohio High School Wrestling Coaches Association held its inaugural girls state tournament last year, amid a grassroots push to get the sport sanctioned by the OHSAA. This year, despite pandemic-related hurdles, the association managed to pull it off again. The 2021 tournament will be split into two days, with lower- and middle-weight wrestlers competing Saturday and middle- and upper-weight wrestlers competing Sunday. Spectator limits will be enforced.

Rinehart will enter a weight bracket Saturday with 15 other wrestlers from across the state. It’ll be her second girls tournament all season – the first being districts – as the pandemic has greatly disrupted scheduling across the state, Mount Vernon head coach Nate Cornell said.

But Rinehart will be ready. After all, her historic win Sunday was years in the making.

***

Vanessa Oswalt remembers the moment as clear as day.

It was the fall of 2017, just months after she’d moved back to her hometown, and she stood in Pleasant Street Elementary’s gym as Mount Vernon’s youth wrestling coach, Brock Evans, introduced her.

“I stayed after one of the practices for the Killer Bees …” recalled Oswalt, who was helping coach the high school team at the time. “Coach Evans had gathered all the girls around so I could individually meet all of them.”

There were three or four girls in the crowd that day. One of them was Rinehart.

At that point, the fifth-grader had just begun wrestling. She became interested in the sport months earlier, watching her younger brother, James, participate in the Little Stingers program. She began tagging along to strength and conditioning sessions that summer.

“When it came time for signups, she said, ‘Mom, I really want to try this,’” Kayla Dalton, Rinehart’s mother, recalled this week. “I said, ‘OK, we’ll give it a shot.’”

And now, at the age of 10, Rinehart would get to meet an icon in her sport – not only in Mount Vernon, but in Ohio and nationwide.

Vanessa Oswalt

Vanessa Oswalt, a 2005 Mount Vernon graduate, has coached high school wrestling in Ohio since 2017.

Oswalt is viewed as a leading voice for women’s wrestling. A 2005 Mount Vernon graduate, she wrestled four years for the Yellow Jackets, eventually starting in the 145-pound weight class on an all-boys team. While there was no girls state tournament at the time (the farthest Oswalt made it was the boys sectional final), she did win national middle school and high school titles, and eventually earned a spot on the U.S. women’s national team in Colorado Springs after graduation. She was a member of the Army’s World Class Athlete program before injuries cut her career short.

Now, Oswalt is back in Ohio. And when she’s not working in the financial office of the Ohio National Guard’s 179th Airlift Wing (she began her military career after wrestling ended), she’s coaching and advocating for the sport she loves. Oswalt serves as the Ohio High School Wrestling Coaches Association Girls Representative, while coaching the Olentangy Orange girls team (one of the first in Ohio) and leading the charge to make girls wrestling a sanctioned OHSAA sport.

“I realized the conditions had not really changed for females since I left high school. Granted, there are more opportunities for female athletes in wrestling, and there are several colleges that offer the sport, and the Olympics had adopted female wrestling, but I realized Ohio had a long way to go …” Oswalt wrote in a piece published last year by Ohio State University, detailing her desire to initiate change.

“I look forward to the day that a female wrestler has the same opportunities men have been afforded for decades. This is a sport I love, and I am convinced that day is coming soon.”

Oswalt returned to her hometown in 2017 following the death of legendary Mount Vernon wrestling coach John Brown. Longtime assistant John Frye had stepped in to lead the team, and when Oswalt offered her assistance, he gladly obliged.

“I wanted her coaching,” Frye said. “She had experience even on a national level, as far as the women’s team, and she was legit.”

The following spring, Oswalt made history, becoming the first woman to coach on the state tournament floor.

“She opened an awful lot of coaches’ eyes down there,” Frye said, “which was really neat to see.”

But that fall night in 2017, standing there at Pleasant Street, it was Oswalt who came away impressed. That night, she saw the future.

In many ways, Rinehart was exactly who Oswalt was fighting for. A young girl, from her hometown, who loved the sport. Her family had no wrestling background, but she wanted to try it anyway.

The two stayed in touch over the years. Oswalt would invite Rinehart to offseason girls tournaments the following summer, and she continued to help out with the Killer Bees. Then, in the summer of 2019, Oswalt had an idea.

She’d just taken a position as the assistant girls wrestling coach at Olentangy Orange (Oswalt would split time between Orange and Mount Vernon that school year before coaching at Orange full-time this season). The school’s inaugural girls team had scheduled open-mat practice sessions every Sunday night, and girls from across central Ohio were invited to attend.

Given their proximity, Oswalt offered to take Rinehart herself.

“I reached out to Emma because she had shown more interest in wanting to do offseason wrestling,” Oswalt recalled. “Anything she can be a part of, I make sure I can include her – whether that’s tournaments, practices, open mats – it’s, ‘I can take you if you want to go.’”

Vanessa Oswalt and Emma Rinehart

Vanessa Oswalt (left) and Emma Rinehart (right) pose following a wrestling tournament.

Rinehart, giddy to gain experience, gladly accepted the invitation. Her mother would drop her off at Oswalt’s house on Sunday afternoons and they would head south.

As Oswalt’s gray Jeep Cherokee traced State Route 229, eventually turning south on Route 61 towards Delaware County, the two developed a bond. They talked about wrestling, but they also talked about life. Oswalt made sure the latter came first.

“We would have conversations about life, then wrestling. I would try and take those as mentoring sessions, making sure she understands that she has the world at her fingertips …” Oswalt said.

“I’d give her my life story and talk about what wrestling has done for me – the good, the bad; where I messed up, where I went right – and I’d just use those car rides as mentally preparing her for the world. Yes, we love wrestling, but that can’t be who we are. That’s where I feel a lot of athletes lose themselves – sports is their only identity.”

Those summer nights were transformative for Rinehart. Not only did she gain valuable experience on the wrestling mat, learning techniques from some of the top instructors in the state, but she also found someone to aspire to. She gained confidence and courage from the woman who came before her – a pioneer, sure, but also a friend, mentor and ally.

“She really introduced me to the whole world of girls wrestling,” Rinehart said.

The two continued to work together during Rinehart’s middle school years. They went to camps and tournaments across the state, including one in Cincinnati in the fall of 2019, where Oswalt met Rinehart at the gym with a surprise.

“I let her warm up with one of my Team USA uniforms,” Oswalt recalled. “Her face just lit up and she was so excited. To have that confidence with it, it was pretty awesome.”

It was this confidence that allowed Rinehart to compete for Mount Vernon in eighth grade, as the only girl on the team. She would carry that torch into high school.

While Rinehart said she was initially nervous to step into the high school wrestling room this fall, she quickly learned that her experience and training had paid off. Cornell said she immediately earned the respect of the boys on the team, and the transition was seamless.

“I wanted to make sure to keep her comfortable, and the guys have done a great job of it, too,” Cornell said. “They all know Emma because she’s been around the program. And they all know that, to make her feel welcome, don’t do anything out-of-the-ordinary to make her feel unwelcome.

“The guys have been great. They all work hard with her, they don’t ever shy away from practicing with her, or going live. So I try to have that mindset as a coach, and kind of portray that onto the wrestlers, and they did a good job with it. She’s just another member of the team.”

Emma Rinehart 2

Mount Vernon freshman Emma Rinehart looks on during a dual meet against Galion in December.

Rinehart agreed. It didn’t take long for her to feel like she was part of the pack.

“The boys were really welcoming. It wasn’t like they didn’t want me there or anything. So that kind of helped me not be nervous for the year …” she said. “When we’re in the room, it’s just like one big family.”

Rinehart uses a different locker room than the rest of the team, which she says sometimes can get lonely. Other than that, however, her experience is the same. At 111 pounds, she lifts and spars with the team’s 106- and 113-pounders, including freshman Brock Blankenhorn and junior Dylan Hartman. Blankenhorn accompanied Rinehart to districts at Orange last weekend, so she would have someone to train with before the match.

“They’re in the same grade, they’ve known each other, so it was cool for them to kind of hang out with each other, too, and to have another teammate there with her so she wasn’t the only one. Because a lot of the girls teams had teammates there with them …” Cornell said Monday. “That was cool of Brock to do that – good leader and good teammate – and Brock’s in that freshman class with Emma. Those two are the leaders of the freshman class, and it showed yesterday.”

Aside from districts, however, Rinehart’s opportunities to compete against girls this season have been limited. The pandemic, combined with the scarcity of competition in Ohio (although numbers are growing), created a match-scheduling nightmare for coaches like Cornell.

“With COVID, a lot of the female wrestling tournaments were either canceled, or the ones that weren’t canceled, they were just looking for full teams like Olentangy Orange, Delaware Hayes, Marysville. So with us only having one girl, they weren’t gonna get us in there, just because they were trying to limit the numbers due to COVID,” he explained. “That was a little bit frustrating.”

Cornell always asked dual-meet opponents if they had a girl wrestler in a similar weight class to bring, he said, but few did.

“Other than the River Valley tournament, where she got to wrestle two girls, that was really the only time she really got a chance to wrestle,” Cornell said. “Delaware, when they came in here and I had a meet with them, they brought a girl, and that was nice. But other than that, it was real tough for her.

“She had to wrestle a lot of boys and she was fine with that. She would much rather wrestle girls, but she was stuck wrestling a lot of boys, and she got a lot of good matches.”

Emma Rinehart 6

Mount Vernon freshman Emma Rinehart wrestles against Delaware Hayes on Feb. 6, 2021.

Wrestling boys every day this winter has been challenging, Rinehart said. But she believes it made her stronger. Once she stepped into the ring last weekend, Rinehart realized her potential.

“She’s very strong. Not only just for a female, but for somebody who weighs 111 pounds, she’s very strong for her size ...” Cornell said. “She works hard here in the weight room, and when she gets to grab people who also weigh 111 pounds it’s like, ‘Oh wow, I can move this person around pretty well.’ And that showed yesterday. She’s just physically stronger than most anybody she wrestles.”

Rinehart started off Sunday with a first-period pin of Hilliard Bradley’s Sami Hosni. Then, with a state bid on the line, she did it again. The freshman took down Delaware Hayes’ Molly Wells, pinning her in the third period to secure her place in history.

“She had gotten me into a cradle, which was not good, so I ended up getting a reversal, which is good,” Rinehart said of the semifinal match. “And I think I’m a pretty good top wrestler, and she went down, so I just was able to ride her out for the two minutes and get a pin.”

Cornell said he barely kept it together as Rinehart hoisted her hand in the air.

“It was great. Honestly, I’m getting old and turning into a soft coach – when she won that match and qualified, I had tears in my eyes,” the third-year head coach said. “It was cool. And I keep on telling her, ‘I don’t think you’ve wrapped your mind around what you accomplished yesterday.’ I, as a coach, haven’t wrapped my mind around what she accomplished yesterday.

“It was just cool because she wrestles so well and she works so hard, and she deserves that. And again, it was frustrating this year because she wasn’t able to wrestle a whole lot of girls, so yesterday she finally had a girls tournament and she made the most of it. It was extremely impressive.”

Nate Cornell

Nate Cornell is in his third season as Mount Vernon's head wrestling coach.

Rinehart’s final opponent, Reynoldsburg’s Gracie Straughter, had to forfeit due to an injury. This meant the freshman from Mount Vernon would not only make it to state, but also claim the district crown.

“It is huge … For her to be the first state qualifier in girls history (in Mount Vernon) and not only to qualify, but to win the district as a freshman, it is just ginormous,” Cornell said. “It’s good for her and good for the program. It’s good for everybody. It’s good for the youth kids to see it, it’s good for the middle school kids to see it, and it’s good for her high school teammates to see it, too.”

Though Rinehart and Oswalt weren’t able to train like normal last summer, due to the pandemic, the freshman still said she thought of her heading into Sunday’s competition. Rinehart flashed back to those summer Sunday nights, and those weekend tournaments, and tried to summon the wisdom she’d learned along the way.

“I think what she’s done is really big for the sport,” Rinehart said of Oswalt. “And so I just kind of went in with confidence and thought, ‘She probably would go in with confidence.’”

Rinehart won the district title on Olentangy Orange’s main gym floor – just below the school’s wrestling room, where she and Oswalt trained. While Oswalt did not see Rinehart’s victory, as she was coaching her own team at the time, she could hardly hide her excitement afterwards.

“I’m getting emotional just talking about it … I am just so excited for Emma. She is such a sweet person and she works hard and doesn’t complain, so seeing her be able to have these opportunities, it’s a dream come true for me,” Oswalt said.

“The fact that I’m able to help somebody else live her dream, at my home school, knowing and having worked with her – I don’t know, words can’t explain it. It’s pretty amazing.”

***

The future of girls wrestling in Ohio looks a lot like Emma Rinehart.

She’s one of approximately 350 girls who will be competing in this weekend’s state tournament – up from 250 last year, despite the pandemic. Oswalt, one of the original organizers of the tournament, said Rinehart’s story is a perfect example of the way interest in girls wrestling has risen over the years.

Pioneers have worked hard to lay the foundation for a more inclusive, competitive sport. Today’s wrestlers are reaping the benefits.

“(I’m) emotional just thinking about it. The girls, they don’t understand how amazing – I can’t stop saying ‘amazing’ – it is for them to be able to compete and not having to fear of having a guy try to hurt them or protect his ego, and to just be able to go out there and focus on the match at-hand instead of all the comments behind the doors,” Oswalt said.

“When I wrestled, I was told I didn’t belong. I was called all of these different names. So for these girls to have a community where they do belong, it’s pretty special.”

Emma Rinehart 4

Freshman Emma Rinehart (third from right) lines up alongside her fellow Yellow Jackets before a dual meet against Galion in December.

At the local level, Cornell envisions a future where more and more girls are wrestling for Mount Vernon. Rinehart hopes her victory Sunday, and her historic state qualification, will help that cause.

“I think it’s a pretty big deal,” she said. “It’s really exciting, just to show that, ‘Oh, this girl can do this.’ Maybe another girl will think, ‘Well, if she can do it, then so can I.’”

After curiously wading into the sport in fifth grade, Rinehart is all-in. Her goal now is to wrestle in college, which Oswalt says is “100-percent attainable.” Rinehart is physically strong for her age, but it’s her intangibles – coachability, confidence, competitiveness – that coaches say set her apart. As more colleges add women’s wrestling programs in the coming years, Rinehart’s opportunities will only increase.

“I can tell you right now that college coaches I’m in communication with are already looking at her ...” Oswalt said. “She has a chance to be a four-time state placer and a four-time state qualifier. It’s just crazy to think that we’re able to say that for girls wrestling.”

Emma Rinehart 3

Emma Rinehart poses with the 2020-21 Mount Vernon wrestling coaching staff.

For now, though, Rinehart is focused on the present. Her job is not yet done. The freshman wants to bring a medal – if not a state trophy – back to Mount Vernon this weekend.

“I know there’s probably gonna be some tough competitors there,” Rinehart said. “I’m just trying to stay calm this week and just kind of treat it like it’s normal and go in with confidence, so that we can try to place.”

Cornell said the message heading into Saturday will be simple: Keep rolling.

“I just want her to keep riding the wave of last weekend. She won those big matches – she won all of them by pin, so that’s a pretty dominant performance – so I want her to continue riding that wave,” he said.

“And that’s why I made sure to talk to her about it yesterday: Yes, let’s be happy about this, but starting today, let’s start focusing on next weekend. Let’s not just be content with being a state qualifier. You’re in the state bracket, might as well do something with it. Let’s get on that podium as a freshman.”

Emma Rinehart 5

Emma Rinehart wins by forfeit against Galion on Dec. 11, 2020.

As practice neared Wednesday, music blared in the John Brown & John Frye Wrestling Room. The mat was filled with boys from all weight classes, sparring and wrangling and wearing off school-day energy.

Around 2:45 p.m., Rinehart walked in. She tied her shoes, flipped back her hair, and proceeded onto the mat, where she was greeted by several teammates. They immediately began sparring, laughing, and carrying on.

No one batted an eye. The music didn’t stop, and the chatter didn’t vanish. Nothing seemed out-of-place or irregular.

It was simply another day, another opportunity to improve.

History in the making.

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.