Central’s support of girls wrestling leads the way in northeast Iowa

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Maria Medberry (top) is one of three girls on Central’s high school wrestling team. The school has been promoting and slowly building female inclusion in the sport. (Photo by Bev Hamann)

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

There’s an old adage that says “girls can do anything boys can do,” and at Central, they are leading the way in bringing that to fruition. Since last year, the school has been promoting and slowly building a girls wrestling team, something both head coach Joe Koehn and activities director Aaron Reinhart have been strongly behind. 

While Central doesn’t have an official girls program, the overall program, which is predominantly male, features several female athletes who compete alongside the boys. 

Although Koehn and Reinhart fully believe in the importance of giving girls the same sporting opportunities, the purpose is not singularly athletic. 

“There are growing opportunities for college scholarships for female wrestlers. If wrestling can be an avenue for students to access education and increase their future quality of life, let’s make them aware of that possibility,” Reinhart said. 

Beyond that, for Koehn, it’s about creating an atmosphere of equality and advancing a sport that he himself competed in and is passionate about. It’s about what wrestling offers, other than having fun and being competitive. Wrestling brings life lessons and teaches values that are often overlooked in everyday life. 

As Koehn put it, wrestling teaches “discipline, confidence, individualism, perseverance and mental toughness,” among other things. So far, the girls have been awesome, he said. 

Reinhart praised Koehn’s efforts. 

“Coach Koehn is known around the state for his work in promoting girls wrestling and growing our meets to include a girls division and the first junior high girls-only meet in state history. He has his foot on the gas, and I work to keep air in the tires and fuel in the tank,” he said.

Reinhart isn’t the only one singing Koehn’s praises. Current wrestler and one of the three female members of the team, Maria Medberry, said she joined the team after speaking with the coach, who at the time was trying to recruit girls. The simple act of recruiting shows this is not just some publicity stunt to stir the pot, but an active movement being led by Koehn. 

But what has it been like establishing a girls presence on the wrestling mat in a sport historically dominated by males? 

“Some people don’t like it [and] some parents are wary of it” because of this history, Koehn admitted, but wrestling is a unique sport. It’s a sport anybody can do. 

“You don’t have to run a 4.3, 40-yard dash or bench press 315 pounds to be successful. There is a style for every person and a way they can all be successful…and last season, every girl who wrestled won at least one match,” Koehn said. 

Reinhart shared similar sentiments, stating, “Wrestling is pretty unique in the way females can compete alongside males. This is possible in football as well, but no other sports.” 

Reinhart spoke of the positive reception the inclusion has garnered. 

“In my three years at Central, girls wrestling has been a top-three topic in positive comments/feedback from the community,” he said.

From Medberry’s perspective as an athlete, most of the pushback has come from adults, not from fellow male athletes. She noted how the male athletes are “more than willing to help [her] improve techniques.” 

The adults, however, are “either shocked or a little concerned” when they find out she wrestles. In the beginning, Medberry said even her parents were not happy with the choice, but they “have since become some of my biggest supporters.” 

All three female wrestlers have slightly different reasons for their involvement in the sport, but at the heart of it all is opportunity. Koehn’s history in the sport pushes him, and when he sees other athletes who share that love, whether they’re male or female, he is determined to provide the opportunity and “make it happen for them.”

For Reinhart, it’s something a bit different. 

“Girls wrestling is a special thing. It reminds me of the World War II ‘We Can Do It’ poster. We will continue to work to provide opportunities for girls to establish a respected position in the sport,” he said. 

For Medberry, it’s about leading by example. 

“I definitely want to show younger girls that they can do whatever sport they want to try. It is OK to step outside of what society has said is normal…I want girls to see that they are in control of what they do and how people see them,” she said. 

As the season unfolds, the female presence should continue to grow. At Central, they have already made great strides and are setting the standard. That included history last season when three girls from Central took part in the Girls State Tournament. 

According to Reinhart, “The most significant aspect of our program is our girls division in our meet in January. This is an opportunity for girls in northeast Iowa to get matches against other girls. It’s not only a great opportunity for Central student-athletes, but also for female wrestlers at dozens of schools around us. That’s something we are very proud of.” 

The future, for Reinhart, would also include hosting 100-plus girls at Central’s individual tournament, and growing it from there. 

Medberry is seeking personal improvement and growth, and she wants to become stronger. 

But perhaps nothing speaks to the future of the program more than Koehn’s dedication to it. 

As Reinhart said, “As a prep athlete, coach Koehn was an elite heavyweight wrestler. For him to work as hard as he has to promote boys and girls wrestling is a true testament to the character and underlying beliefs he has as a person. It’s great to work alongside someone who advocates so strongly for all kids.” 

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