Meet the Player: Kemper, from W.Va., picked up wrestling after trip to Hawaii
Liberty University women’s wrestling standout Rebekah Kemper, who placed fourth at 191 pounds in the NCWA Grand National Championships in Texas as a senior this past spring, never competed on the mat until her sophomore year with the Lady Flames.
The Beckley, W.Va., native was inspired to sport a singlet and lace up wrestling shoes after traveling on a Christian Youth Ministries of Hawaii summer mission trip after her freshman year led by Corey Bonheim, son of Liberty’s founding men’s wrestling coach and inaugural Athletics Hall of Fame class inductee Bob Bonheim.
“I came to Liberty my freshman year and I didn’t really like it a whole lot, so I was thinking about transferring out,” said Kemper, who graduated in May with dual B.S. degrees in Exercise Science, specializing in fitness as well as strength and conditioning, with a minor in sports management: sports outreach after finding her athletic calling through the Club Sports program.
Corey Bonheim has connections with Randy Manley, pastor of Molokai Baptist Church in Hawaii, who wrestled for the Flames under Bonheim’s dad when current Flames Head Coach Jesse Castro served as assistant. Manley’s daughters Cendall Manley and Charisse (Manley) McIlhenny both wrestled for the Lady Flames, combining to win five NCWA National Championships before taking Liberty’s women’s wrestling coaching reins upon graduating in 2020.
They convinced Kemper to try out for the women’s wrestling team after introducing her to the sport on the mission trip.
“I had never even watched a wrestling match before, but I somehow got it in my mind that I was going to wrestle for Liberty,” said Kemper, who had followed her two older sisters to the university. “So I emailed the coach (Josh McIlhenny) over that summer and had no idea what I’m volunteering for, no idea what I’m getting myself into, but I was like, ‘I’m going to wrestle.’”
The connection made all the difference in her outlook as a student-athlete, although it was an extremely difficult transition at first.
“I didn’t transfer out of Liberty, and I came back and the showed up (to tryouts) … and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Kemper said. “The first two weeks (of practices), I was like, ‘Oh, my word.’ I literally think I threw up every day. But now it is my third year, and it really kind of hooks you a little bit.”
Kemper, who served as one of her team’s spiritual leaders this past season, said her favorite Bible verse is the one printed on the sweatshirt provided by the Club Sports spiritual development staff — 2 Timothy 1:7, which reads, “For God gave us not a spirit of fear, but of love, and of power, and of a sound mind.”
“I really love that verse because I know that personally sometimes I can struggle with a lot of fear, so it is always a really good reminder … especially in wrestling, when you go out and are about to wrestle a match,” she said. “It can be pretty intimidating (because) you’re literally about to battle with another person. But even in my brokenness and in my weakness, God has not given me a spirit of fear. Yes, sometimes I still fail, and yes, sometimes I still lose matches, and yes, sometimes I’m still terrified of life and wrestling and school and everything else, but to have that reminder (gives me strength.)”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Patrick Strawn/Club Sports Director of Video & Media