Julia Reininga’s Influence at Southern Wesleyan Transcends Sports
On May 6, Julia Reininga was named Director of Athletics at Southern Wesleyan University, a small private Christian school in the heart of South Carolina.
Judging by her passion and past dedication, Reininga is a natural fit for her new position.
"Julia is just loaded with positivity," said Mike Gillespie, Southern Wesleyan's Head Baseball Coach and Assistant Athletic Director. "Her personality is infectious. No matter the day or situation, she's always upbeat. Nothing phony. She's so natural."
Reininga, the eighth-year volleyball coach (140-113 career mark) who had served as SWU's interim Athletic Director the past two months, is a woman of deep faith. So much so, she earned a Master's degree in the Ministry from Bethel College in Indiana.
"Her personal relationship with Jesus Christ is absolutely the driving force behind everything she does," said Emily Germain, the department's Assistant Athletic Director for Academic Success and Community Engagement. "Like the rest of us here at SWU, that's our No. 1 priority, followed by academics and athletics."
In speaking with many of her fellow coaches and administrators, it's clear that Julia is universally loved and admired on campus.
"When she arrives, she automatically brings more positivity and energy to a room," Germain continued. "I think what separates her from many, though, is there is real substance behind that attitude. She truly cares about people below the surface. And she has the ability to get in the mud, roll up her sleeves and get things done."
Beyond the bubbly personality and that smooth head—she was diagnosed 15 years ago with Alopecia Areata, an autoimmune skin disease resulting in the loss of hair—what you first notice about Reininga is she is driven. She's driven to succeed in her coaching and administrative career, and she's driven to become a fast friend with virtually everyone she encounters.
"I think we probably spoke for about five or 10 minutes the first time we met, but I felt like I had already known her for a long time," said Gillespie, recalling when Reininga was hired as volleyball coach in 2012. "Reinie is just so genuine. I knew right then that she was going to be fun to be around in the department. She turned out to be a lot more than that!"
Reininga, who has received multiple honors, ranging from 2007 National Christian College Athletic Association Coach of the Year to the 2017 NCAA Bob Frederick Sportsmanship Award winner in her 30-plus years in athletics, had little choice in becoming a sports enthusiast as a child.
She grew up in the shadow of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Both of her grandparents worked at the storied university and were avid Fighting Irish football fans.
"I was raised in a sports family for sure," Julia said. "Instead of getting dolls as a young girl, I got balls."
Before long, she was playing soccer and volleyball. At Penn High School, she became a middle blocker and team captain on volleyball teams that advanced to the Sectionals.
Her gilded volleyball career blossomed further at Bethel College, where she was named the school's first NAIA All-American. She led the Pilots to two NCCAA National Championships in 1993 and 1994.
Julia's love for life and volleyball was heavily influenced by her mother, Diane Cortelyou, who essentially raised her and her older brother, Matthew, as a single parent (her father has not been in her life for several years).
"My mom is just an amazing, strong woman," said Reininga. "She worked so hard to provide for me and my brother. Maybe we didn't get everything we wanted but we never lacked what we needed. When someone tells me that I'm just like my mother, that's such a compliment. She's always been a hero to me."
Julia shared how her mom continually sacrificed so she could play club volleyball growing up. Mrs. Cortelyou would use all her vacation time to travel to tournaments to see her daughter play.
And it was her mother who shaped Julia's unselfish and giving nature, setting an example with her kindness and contributions to others while earning a living in sales and administration for various food distribution companies.
"She's retired now," said Reininga. "But she still delivers 150 meals to people in need and makes phone calls for her church. Soon she plans to move from Indiana to Central, S.C., so I'm thrilled."
Assistant AD Germain has seen many sides of Julia, as a university colleague, friend and former member of the volleyball coaching staff. Previously serving as a psychology professor and Faculty Athletic Representative at Southern Wesleyan, she offers insights on Reininga's coaching and leadership style.
"She is a great motivator," Germain stressed. "I used to always kid her about how she could make a positive even more positive and turn a negative into a positive. On road matches, if a gym was brightly lit, she would tell the players that it was a great atmosphere to play. But if a gym was dark and dank, she would tell them she always loved dark gyms because the white ball really pops!"
And her personality traits as a coach will also serve her well as SWU's new Athletic Director.
"She never yells during practices or games," said Germain, who was an assistant coach in 2012 and 2013. "Julia builds such trust and respect with her team. She doesn't have many rules, just be respectful and be a good teammate. It's all about building a community of love."
This March, longtime AD Chris Williams announced his plans to retire in early April. Julia was named interim Athletic Director the day of the announcement.
She was the logical choice, as the esteemed volleyball coach was notorious for her volunteer work within the department and university and helping shepherd SWU in transitioning from NAIA to NCAA Division II status. She had already established herself as the ultimate team player.
"We're a small university and athletic department," said Gillespie. "Julia is always the first to jump in to help another coach, whether it be to run the scoreboard, take tickets or sweep the floor. She's more focused on the overall athletic department than most coaches. She's just so caring and giving. She wants all of us to succeed."
Reininga's influence at Southern Wesleyan transcends sports.
"She's got such a reputation on campus," said Gillespie. "If you want to get something done, you call Julia. The university hosted the Special Olympics so, of course, they called her. She gets things done and always brings a big crowd along with her. She delivered hundreds of volunteers. She was called again for Homecoming. If she's spread too thin, it's because everyone asks for her help."
Gillespie also marveled at how Julia has involved her volleyball team in community work.
"She has hooked up her team with the school's physical plant," she said. "The athletes paint things and pick up trash on campus. They even have given free car washes to students and faculty. And Julia refuses to accept any money and she won't allow the campus folks to even take photos for publicity. She says, 'that's not why we're doing this.'"
It's that type of esprit de corps and camaraderie-building that impressed Dr. Chris Confer, SWU's Vice President for Student Life, who oversees athletics.
"Julia comes across so passionately about athletics," said Dr. Confer, the person who chose Reininga as the school's new Athletic Director along with President Dr. Todd Voss. "I find her so easy to work with. She brings a lot of energy and joy to her job. And she's so passionate in her faith in Jesus Christ, which serves her and the university so well."
Confer reeled off a list of qualifications that the new AD possesses.
"Julia is very detail-oriented, understands NCAA rules and is a good budget manager. She's also great in resolving conflict, whether with parents, students, coaches or whomever. She genuinely wants to understand people and where they're coming from before making any judgements or decisions. And she's quite adept at finding solutions that produce a win-win if at all possible. But she will hold her ground if necessary."
Reininga became only the third Athletic Director in the 51-year history of Southern Wesleyan athletics. While the announcement came two weeks ago, she still needs to pinch herself to make sure she's not dreaming.
"It's truly an amazing feeling," said Julia. "It shows me that SWU is a great place to work because people stay here. What an honor to be a part of that history. When Dr. Confer extended the offer, I got choked up a little. I couldn't believe it was actually happening. My first calls were to my mom and family. They were all so excited!"
She views this new position as more than an opportunity to run a college athletic program. She believes it happened through divine intervention.
"Our number one goal at SWU is to develop young men and women of faith, whether it be in the classroom, in sports or in the cafeteria. There are so many wonderful teaching moments. It's just awesome that I can use sports as my personal ministry."
The idea of practicing that ministry through athletics first surfaced when Julia was exposed to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes as a student at Bethel. The thought continued to germinate when she and her teammates did missionary work in Monterey, Mexico and Ghana, Africa.
"After those experiences, I felt this was my calling from that point on," she said.
Beyond her testimony of faith, Reininga also enjoys testifying to people about her rare hairless condition and ways it might help others.
"I used to always be concerned how my (red) hair looked," she admitted. "But losing it gave me a totally different perspective."
Julia was 30 years old, serving as head volleyball coach at Bethel, when the disease struck.
"It happened so quickly," she shared. "I woke up one morning and a huge patch (3 by 3 inches) of hair was missing from the top of my head. Then it just came out in handfuls. I called the doctor for an appointment. My mom came over to be with me."
The initial diagnosis suggested it was a stress disorder. After the examination, Julia was sent to the "wig place" in the hospital, where the staff tried to match her hair color. Then, they shaved her head.
"Within two weeks, I was completely bald, including eye lashes, everything."
Soon thereafter, she paid a visit to a specialist in Chicago. She underwent different treatment regimens for almost two years, but the hair never grew back. It was at that point that Julia was told it was Alopecia.
"I just made the decision just to be me and not wear a wig," she said. "I thought maybe my 'new look' would open doors to help people."
She did, however, initially wear a hat on campus. While she shared the news with close friends and co-workers, many strangers assumed that she had undergone cancer treatment.
"I would go to the grocery store and see all these sad looks from people," she said, chuckling. "I felt like telling them, 'I'm fine!' Finally, I had the school put my diagnosis on its website."
Unfortunately, Reininga's condition has compromised her immune system, which means she's at greater risk during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
"I'm used to protocol anyway," she shrugged. "I already needed to wash my hands and face often."
Julia's decision to dismiss pretense and proudly display her shining, bare head was no surprise to her many admirers.
"That's who she is," smiled Gillespie. "She's not going to hide anything. You get what you get."
And it's clear what you get: A genuine person who is keenly interested in her student-athlete's welfare along with someone who cares deeply about their success on the court and cares even more about their future success in life.
This article was published May 15, 2020, on the Conference Carolinas Website.
Bob Rose is a longtime sports public relations executive who has worked for the San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, the NFL Cardinals, Cal, Stanford and other organizations.