Mariah Harris is making a name for herself as a champion wrestler with her sights on the U.S. Olympic team.
But the Johnstown native sees her long-term future as a champion for people who don’t have a voice in society or in the legal system.
Her dream since she was young has been to become a civil rights attorney.
“I want to help people who can’t help themselves and people who face problems,” Harris said. “I want to help kids who are facing hard times and families that are facing hard times, and adults that don’t know. I want to be the voice for them to really change.”
After winning numerous tournaments as a high school wrestler at Greater Johnstown, Harris competed at Campbellsville University in Kentucky, capturing a national title last February.
A month later, Breonna Taylor was killed by police who broke into her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment during a drug investigation.
Harris was finalizing her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at the time.
She said being so close to that incident left a deep impression on the girl who did a research paper on civil rights when she was a senior in high school. She had studied the teachings of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders – and used that inspiration to find her own path forward.
She is now working on a master’s degree in business administration at Tiffin University in Ohio, while helping coach the women’s wrestling team. Law school could be next.
“You have to fight with your voice,” Harris said. “I feel like that’s one thing that helped me grow. Everyone knows my voice is wrestling, so I kind of show who I am through wrestling – but also, in my community, to give back, to let anyone of my race, anyone of different genders, know that you have to keep fighting, no matter what. But you can’t fight the way they want you to. It’s like, you have to get on top. You outwork them or you outsmart them.”
‘Raised each other’
Wrestling analogies for school and life come naturally for Harris, who counts among her coaches and mentors the late Carlton Haselrig, a six-time NCAA champion at Pitt-Johnstown who passed away last year, and brothers Malcolm and Will Harris. Malcolm was a district and regional champion in high school and competed in the 2018 U.S. Open. Will, a former high school standout, coaches the Greater Johnstown High School team.
Will Harris said his sister’s motivation to study criminal justice and law stems from encounters some family members have had with the legal system.
Will recounted his own legal entanglements that involved leaving school at St. Francis University, where he was on the football team, after being accused of conspiracy to manufacture and deliver drugs because he lived in a house where a relative was under suspicion of being a drug dealer.
On the advice of his attorney, Will said, he pleaded “no contest” – which he says he didn’t fully understand didn’t mean “not guilty” – and which left a stain.
“I’m still fighting that issue to this day,” he said. “It ended my football career at St. Francis and forced me out of school. It put me back home, trying to figure out life and working with these kids.”
In addition to Malcolm and Mariah, Will Harris has two older sisters and two younger sisters. Mariah is the second-youngest of the family.
Will has a wrestling analogy of his own that he offers to his siblings and members of his Trojans program.
“I was blessed to have some people on my side – my sisters, my brother, my wrestling family,” he said. “And from experience, I tell them, ‘You’re down 12-0, and what are you going to do? Are you going to roll over and get pinned or are you going to fight back?’ “
‘She had a plan’
In some ways, the roles of Mariah and her big brother have flipped, he said. Now, she’s often the one providing inspiration and lessons in achieving goals.
“She’s one of the few people who, as a young kid, had written her whole plan out and stuck to it and chased it,” Will said. “She’s been talking about becoming a lawyer, even a judge, since she was 7 or 8 years old. She had a plan and she went after it.
“Our family had some run-ins with the law. She really wants to work with people who don’t have the funds to fight cases or have representation.”
Wrestling, Will Harris said, is a means to career opportunities.
“Looking at the communities we represent, a lot of these kids couldn’t afford to go to college or law school,” he said. “I told her, ‘Wrestling’s going to be a big part of this.’ My old wrestling coach, Allen Andrews, always told me that sports can be a vehicle. Use it to get where you want to go. She has done that.”
Mariah has become one of the faces of the growing sport of women’s wrestling.
“She’s truly a trailblazer,” Will said. “It’s not a mystery why there are so many girls in this area that are getting involved with wrestling. The sport is growing in Pennsylvania, and she’s the leader.”
Mariah Harris said: “People always tell me, ‘You don’t realize how big you are.’ It’s just wrestling … and I’ve been doing it since third grade. It’s just a lifestyle. So seeing other girls come up to me, saying I inspire them, it means so much, because when I was by myself, I didn’t really have someone to walk beside and look up to, to create my leaders and role models. So now, taking that responsibility for the younger females, it makes me push even more. When I’m training by myself, I’m lifting and I’m running and I’m working out, it’s pushing me because I know so many girls are looking up to me.”
And they might just watch her compete on the sport’s biggest stage.
The U.S. Olympic Trials are tentatively set for April at Penn State. The Summer Games – delayed a year – would be in Japan if the COVID-19 pandemic allows the competition to happen.
“I just have to prepare and try to be ready for whenever the time comes,” Mariah said. “The pandemic is hard for all of us. Right now, I’m just trying to take it day by day and go with the flow, honestly.”
‘They made a way’
When in Johnstown, Harris volunteers as a mentor for young girls, helping them with homework and offering advice.
“I just talk to them, try to pick their brains, see how school’s going and make sure they’re OK, because some people don’t have anybody,” she said. “… It takes one person to change your life completely. Some kids don’t necessarily have the best home situations or even food on the table. … It’s small things that some people take for granted that kids don’t have.”
She recalled being in fifth grade when Barack Obama became the nation’s first Black president and having conversations with teachers, classmates and her mother about the significance of that moment.
Now, the country has its first woman serving as vice president – Kamala Harris, whose family is from India.
“We had the first African-American president … and now this,” Mariah Harris said. “Our ancestors, my grandfather who passed away – he didn’t see this. But I know he’s really happy. People who couldn’t live to see this day, they’re looking down, and seeing, wow, we’re making a change. But if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here. They made a way. And now we have to make a way for our future.”
She added: “A hundred years ago, African Americans like me couldn’t do it, females couldn’t do it. … I want to let females know that you can do anything you want. … Getting the chance to study and live my dreams out is what I want to give back to other females, to live their dreams out. We’re all capable of doing it, no matter what anyone says.”
‘Just keep going’
Her ultimate dream? Running her own law firm and a gym – for “people like me,” she said.
“Just keep going – no matter what your race is, your gender,” Mariah said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, keep going and never give up on yourself. You have to keep going and never stop fighting. There are people who think they can’t do it, that they don’t have the support. We all can do it. You just need someone there to push you, and I want to be that person.”
Will Harris said nothing Mariah says she wants to do and nothing she accomplishes surprises him.
“I talk to her and urge her to peel the onion, look at the layers in her life,” he said. “There are so many directions it can go. She amazes me every day. She calls me Superman. But she’s Superwoman. She’s doing it.”
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