By JEREMY HINES
Warren Central senior Kiersten O’Neill has had quite an illustrious wrestling career. She recently won her third Indiana High School Girls Wrestling state title and did so in dominating fashion. Not bad for a girl that doesn’t like to wrestle, really doesn’t enjoy practicing and sometimes doesn’t even get along with her coach.
“Yeah, I don’t really like wrestling, per se,” O’Neill said. “But I love the environment of the sport and the energy it holds. That’s what keeps me attached to it.”
O’Neill’s coach is her own father, Jake.
“It doesn’t surprise me that she says that,” Jake said. “If you ask most coaches/ dads, it’s tough coaching your own kids. As a coach you hold your athletes to high expectations and not that I don’t do that as a dad, but when they fall short of those expectations it can bleed into home. It’s tough to draw those lines and keep those frustrations in the room and on the mat and not let it affect what’s going on at home.”
Jake has always pushed Kiersten to be her best in the sport – and, although at times she’s gotten frustrated with her dad as a coach, she sees it has been in her best interest.
“My dad and I would get into it a lot,” Kiersten said. “Coach and wrestler, father and daughter is a very different dynamic. There have been points where I was like, this is too hard, I can’t do that. I wanted to stop, but I kept going. I think if he wasn’t as present as he is though, it wouldn’t be the same and I wouldn’t have the successes I’ve had.”
Kiersten’s brother started wrestling when he was 4 years old. He ultimately decided that wasn’t the sport for him.
“I made my son wrestle when he was four,” Jake said. “By the time he was a freshman he ended up playing basketball and that’s about the same time Kiersten was like, dad, I’ll wrestle. I was like, oh, yeah, you’re probably going to be pretty good, too. I think she was six at the time.
“Her journey in wrestling gave me a perspective on women’s wrestling that I never had before and I wouldn’t have had if she didn’t wrestle.”
Kiersten won the state meet as a freshman, then placed second as a sophomore. She won as a junior and last weekend she beat her opponent 17-3 in the championship.
She would like to wrestle in college and eventually she would like to follow in her father’s footsteps and coach wrestling.
For Kiersten, and for many of the female wrestlers we write about in these articles, there becomes an unusually strong bond between opponents. Kiersten’s best friends are wrestlers on rival schools.
“Cailin and Catie (Campbell) are my best friends since I started wrestling,” Kiersten said. “We live far apart but we always make sure we see each other. I talk to them every day. It’s been great to experience that with other people that share your same interests. I think if you watch the finals you can see my reaction after Caty won her state title. I was screaming ‘That’s my best friend’.”
Kiersten also plays soccer. She admits that her wrestling aggression sometimes gets her in trouble on the soccer field.
“Yeah, I’ve had quite a few yellow and red cards,” she said. “Soccer, to me, is a lot of running. But the aggression I get from being a wrestler definitely helps me. I’m not exactly proud of my yellow and red cards, I just think I underestimate my strength some against girls that don’t wrestle.”
Jake really enjoys watching Kiersten on the soccer field, where he can relax and be a dad and not a coach.
“Her wrestling absolutely comes out in soccer,” Jake said. “She’s very competitive, aggressive and physical. She is fearless. It all spills out on the soccer field and it’s fun to watch. The other girls aren’t nearly as aggressive as her. Our athletic director was a professional soccer player. When he saw her play he was like ‘woah’. He was blown out of the water with the competitive edge she plays with. I enjoy every minute of watching her play.”
In wrestling, Kiersten is excited for what the future for girls is like in the state. Every year the numbers increase. If she had one piece of advise for girls just starting out in the sport it would be to stick to it.
“You just have to stick to it,” she said. “You can’t give up, even when it’s hard. I know it gets hard and I’ve not enjoyed that time. But stick it out. Push through. It will be worth it in the end.”