By Ken Jackson
One of the nation’s best female flag football players is based right here in Kissimmee, where she works as an associate producer for ESPN at Wide World of Sports.
But you won’t find Mariah Gearhart in town this weekend — she’s in Panama City. The one in Panama.
She’s with the U.S. National Flag Football team which is competing in the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) Men’s and Women’s Flag Football World Championships, which concludes today and tomorrow. The 29-year-old is a rusher — think of a defensive end on a dead run after the quarterback — on the 12-player squad made of ladies from across the country.
Representing the United States in the 11-team event of squads from around the world is a “dream come true” for the athletic nomad originally from southern California who played college softball for Oklahoma State, which made a Women’s College World Series appearance in 2011, then made a name for herself in both her career and flag football in Charlotte, N.C.
“In my sophomore year at Oklahoma State, they took softball out of the Olympics, which killed my dream,” she said. “This is my opportunity to wear a U.S.A. uniform in a sport I’ve grown in and come to love.”
Gearhart had previously played in local and national tournaments with and against some of the other Team USA players, like quarterback Vanita Krouch out of Carrolton, Texas.
“She’s a QB and I’m a rusher, so let’s say we’ve gotten to know each other in many backfields,” Gearhart said. “She’s the best quarterback I’ve ever faced.”
Krouch and a few of the other Texas-based players are on the national team, and Gearhart has played with them on Team Adrenaline, a Dallas area-based women’s team, and it was through their word-of-mouth to the coaching staff, led by Chris Lankford, another Texan, she became part of the national squad.
“It’s funny how I got on the team, because I didn’t try out,” she said. “In 2015 I found out there was a Team USA, and told all those players about it, and we couldn’t believe we didn’t know about it. In 2016, I couldn’t go to the tournament because of work commitments. I’m truly thankful and grateful for the opportunity.”
Gearhart has been a big football fan — the Dallas Cowboys go deep into her roots — all her life, but didn’t start playing flag until 2011, after she’d left Oklahoma State and was working for ESPNU in Charlotte.
“I was playing slowpitch softball and one of my teammates asked me if I was interested in playing flag football with them after the season, and after just a couple of games I was hooked,” she said. “My natural athletic ability and hard work took over from there.”
Once in Central Florida, she joined co-ed teams but found the best competition by playing on men’s teams, usually as the only female on the squad.
“They were great about taking me in, and I even met my boyfriend on my current team,” Gearhart said, noting they compete in leagues in Winter Park and Clermont.
Team USA is seeded fifth in the world championships behind defending champion and host Panama, Austria, Mexico and Canada. Gearhart said the team is undaunted.
“This team is made up of great athletes with a high football IQ, and frankly those rankings are based on past competitions,” she said. “We’ve got a lever of athleticism that nobody’s ever seen from USA flag, so we’re full of confidence.”
Check out the progress of Team USA in the World Championships at www.ffwc2018.org.