Josh Sneva thought Payton Irish’s wrestling season was over before it even really got started.

Irish was a returning state participant and an integral part of North Thurston High School’s growing girls wrestling program. She was a senior, a leader and provided the blueprint to the newer members of the squad, successfully showcasing how dedication and hard work can pay off.

Last season had just started and Sneva, the Rams’ head wrestling coach, was overseeing Irish practice with one of her teammates when the scary incident occurred. Irish attempted a throw when her arm got trapped at an awkward angle under her partner who proceeded to roll over it.

“It was ugly,” Sneva recalled. “I knew it was serious the second it happened. I thought she was done for the year, and figured the bone was shattered.”

North Thurston’s Payton Irish (pictured with her father, Trevor Irish) will become the first member of the Rams girls wrestling team to compete at the college level when she attends Corban University. Photo credit: Payton Irish

Once Sneva visited Irish in the hospital he learned the extend of the horrible injury – she had suffered a severely dislocated elbow.

“I didn’t think she would be able to come back,” Sneva admits.

Irish, who started wrestling in middle school and has an extensive background in MMA, boxing, and Muay Thai kickboxing, was not given much of a chance to return following the injury. The options were simple – she could either call it a high school wrestling career and begin the long process of healing up or she could endure immense pain and head back to the sport she loves.

Turns out it was an easy decision for her. Irish selected the latter.

“The fact she was back on the mat within a couple weeks, in a limited capacity, showed how dedicated she was to her goals and to the team, and just how tough she is,” Sneva said. “She was basically in pain 27-7. The injury limited her for the rest of the year, and she knew it would, but she didn’t give up and put it on the line anyway.”

It is difficult enough to secure a spot at the state wrestling tournament when fully healthy. Irish accomplished the feat basically with one arm.

Irish (second from left) was a two-time state participant for the North Thurston girls wrestling program. Photo credit: Payton Irish

“In my head,” Irish said, “I was going to wrestle that season, or my coaches were going to have to hold me back every practice and every competition day.”

At the end of the year when it was time for the team to cast their votes for “Most Inspirational” wrestler, Irish won in a landslide as she received every single vote.

“It’s pretty exciting to know that I got to be a part of North Thurston’s history,” Irish said. “I always wanted to be a Ram and follow in my parent’s footsteps. I’m even more excited because I think that having a girl’s wrestling team at North Thurston is a really big deal. I believe the girls I wrestled with everyday are the toughest girls around. Together we possessed more heart and grit than any team I’ve seen yet. There is no quit with in the girls in the Rams mat room – absolutely none.”

And few helped established that thinking more than Irish this past wrestling season.

“The injury made me modify my practices, warmups, and competitions significantly. I had to focus on learning the things I was good at on my left arm instead of my right which was my dominant arm,” Irish said. “Most of the season I wasn’t allowed to put my body weight on it or let anyone else. Most practices, I would go to extremes to make sure I didn’t do anything to re-injure it.”

That meant wrapping her right arm to her side, covering it with a sweatshirt and competing with just her left arm.

Irish shows off her medals at the 2019 USMC Junior Open Championships. Photo credit: Payton Irish

“I was determined to make it back,” Irish said. “I only got a couple of matches in before the injury so it was important for me to not reinjure it while learning to do everything I could with my left arm. It was pretty entertaining to watch.”

Now with the injury behind her, Irish, who was a member of the USMC 2019 Fargo Junior National Champion team and the Folkstyle champion and freestyle runner-up at the USMC Junior Open Championships last year, is fully focused on the next chapter of her life as she will wrestle for Corban University, becoming the first member of the North Thurston girls wrestling team to compete at the collegiate level.

“I think she learned how to win and believe in herself,” said Sneva when asked what was the biggest change he saw in Irish during her high school career. “When I first started coaching Payton, she didn’t fully understand why our coaching staff had so much belief in her, but during her run to the state tournament this past season, she had to dig deep and win late in a few critical matches.  She learned how to win. The exciting thing for Payton is that she’s still just beginning to tap into her ability. It wouldn’t surprise me to see her take huge steps forward in her wrestling at the college level.”

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