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Coached by Dean Olson, Ohio Girls Wrestling Club was ahead of its time 20 years ago

Coached by Dean Olson, Ohio Girls Wrestling Club was ahead of its time 20 years ago


Coach Dean Olson (back row, center) stands with his youth girls wrestling club.

By Tom Nader

Publisher and Editor


Dean Olson has watched the rise of girls wrestling with a smile, but also without surprise.

“It has been unbelievable to see,” he said.

Twenty years ago, Olson was at the forefront of the sport in Portage County.

At a time when it still would catch spectators off guard to see a girl on the wrestling mat.

And even more so to see a girl wrestling a boy.

Olson never got caught up in that dichotomy.

Instead, he simply coached the sport he loves to a group of girls that were also falling in love with the sport.

The team was called the Ohio State Girls Wrestling Club and it was based largely out of Mantua and included many Crestwood Red Devils.

One of them was Paige Nemec, whose name has reached legendary status in Portage County wrestling history.

As a senior, Nemec became the first female wrestler in state history to advance to the state championships and win a match. She finished her career with 115 wins, which ranks 42nd in Portage County history.

Nemec first began wrestling in 2002 as a third grader.

“From the very beginning, you could tell that she was something special. She was very, very tough, and she dominated all of the boys,” Olson said. “I think she really had a big part in getting the sport going locally because of her success.”

Soon, Nemec’s friend, Lisa Light, joined the Ohio State Girls Wrestling Club. And so did girls from all over the region, including Doylestown, Ashtabula, Conneaut, Warren, Mentor, Medina, among other locations. All would travel to work out with each other up to three days a week.

Nemec went on to become a five-time girls state champion and Light won four of her own.

“We would go to state tournaments and national tournaments, and we would meet other girls at these tournaments that were looking for an outlet to train,” Olson said. “They were looking for a team to join that was in their area and all of a sudden, I realized that I was the only place for a lot of these girls to get this opportunity.”

At the time, the Ohio State Girls Wrestling Club was the only team in Ohio and peaked with about 25 wrestlers on the team. The team’s shirts depicted two girls wrestling each other with the words: Man’s oldest sport perfected by women.

Olson coached the group for 13 years (2002-2015) and coordinated to bring the Girls Wrestling State Championships to Crestwood for five years.

“I knew then that I was ahead of my time,” Olson said. “A lot of guys did not want girls on their teams. Girls came to be on my team because there were no other opportunities. Looking back on it, I am glad I was able to give them the opportunity to wrestle. To have their own team. The camaraderie that came with it became so very important to the girls. Many of the wrestlers I coached went on to wrestle in college with success, receive scholarships, compete in the Olympic trials. Even far beyond that, the friendships and relationships that it allowed me to have. It was really special, and honestly, how much better does it get than all of that?”

Olson, a 1971 graduate of Aurora High School, began his wrestling career as a seventh grader, but the middle-school program did not start at Aurora then until eighth grade. In many respects, Olson said that his first true year of wrestling was his freshman year. He was a member of the JV team as a sophomore, began to improve tremendously as a junior, but missed out on qualifying for the state tournament. As a senior, Olson, wrestling at 155 pounds, was runner-up at the state championships. He attended Kent State University, where he was a practice room wrestler, then he transferred to Defiance College and became a tournament MVP and conference champion.

Olson became an art teacher art Crestwood Middle School and coached the middle-school wrestling program before spending 18 years as a volunteer coach for the Red Devils’ youth program.

He first remembers recognizing girls in wrestling in the 1980’s.

“I had a subscription to USA Wrestling magazine, and I saw stories in there about it,” Olson said. “I have to admit, when I first saw it, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, girls are wrestling’?”

Fast forward another 20 years from that point and Olson found himself leading the only girls wrestling club in Ohio that helped catapult the sport in Portage County.

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