A 2011 Mustangs’ graduate, Rivera ended his high school career with two state championships and a 218-31 record. He was a two-time Cobb County champion, three-time state placer and four-time area winner.
Success has apparently followed Rivera into the college ranks.
A redshirt sophomore at Notre Dame College in Ohio, Rivera captured his first national championship last month, beating previously undefeated Cory Dauphin of Central Oklahoma 5-2 in the 152-pound final at the NCAA Division II championships in Cleveland.
The No. 5 seed Rivera went 4-0 in his 16-person bracket. He squeaked out a 3-2 first round victory over Sheldon Struble of Indianapolis in the first round before taking down Justin Pencock of UNC Pembroke 8-6 in the quarterfinals. He dispatched St. Cloud State’s Clint Poster 7-4 in the semifinals to reach the championship round.
Rivera completed the season with a 25-6 overall record and was the NCAA Division II Super Region I champion.
“Every wrestler who is dedicated to the sport dreams of wrestling in college and to go out and win a national championship,” Rivera said. “I knew I had the skill and the talent to do it when I graduated from Kennesaw Mountain, but there were some little things that had to be tweaked for me to be as successful as I wanted to be.
“What I had done didn’t hit me until a couple of days later. It didn’t resonate with me until folks at school started congratulating and recognizing me and the president (of the University) congratulated me. It’s a really special feeling.”
Rivera’s success came slowly at Notre Dame. He redshirted his first year with the Falcons and cut weight during the 2012-13 season — wrestling at 149 pounds — to help the team.
“It was hard for me to make that weight and I never really made the adjustment,” Rivera said.
Undaunted, Rivera earned the starting spot at 157 entering the 2013-14 campaign, but still faced adversity along the way. A doctor repaired a torn tear duct in his right eye, forcing Rivera to wear a mask for a few months to allow the injury to heal.
“I started the season slowly with that injury,” Rivera said. “The doctor let me back sooner rather than later, but the mask made it hard to breathe so I lost some matches. Once I took that off, I started rolling”
Rivera credits his training partners Eric Burgey (165 pounds) and Joey Davis (174) for helping to put him in position to succeed. Burgey and Davis also won national titles for Notre Dame College.
“I had some good practices with my teammates,” Rivera said. “Working with Joey and drilling with Eric really pushed me. I was ready for my competition and for anything my opponents could do because my teammates prepared me. I think we have the best room in Division II and that’s why I won.”
Rivera’s family, including his father and Kennesaw Mountain coach Roberto Rivera along with brother, three-time state champion Justan Rivera, attended the championships to see Jonatan win his national title.
“Them coming up really meant a lot,” Jonatan said. “The first thing I did was turned to them and gave a fist pump. My dad’s hands were raised and there were tons of fans in the stands since the school is so close to Cleveland. It was crazy. The atmosphere was really cool.”
Roberto Rivera was proud of Jonatan as his former coach and as his father.
“I always thought Jonatan could win a college national championship,” Roberto said. “He has the passion, the skills and the work ethic that you need to translate into a successful college career. He pretty much dominated his championship match.
“As a father, I’m tremendously proud of him. He works really hard and deserves what he gets. He puts the time in to be successful and he takes care of himself.”
Jonatan’s championship helped Notre Dame College win its first NCAA Division II wrestling title and earned Jonatan his first All-America honor.
The Cobb County product wasn’t the only local to claim an all-America nod in wrestling. Brandon Westerman, a four-time state champion at McEachern and current senior at Campbellsville University, placed sixth at 141 pounds at the NAIA championships, giving Westerman back-to-back All-America nods.
Life University senior Trey Hicks — the Running Eagles’ first wrestling All-American — also garnered back-to-back All-America accolades after finishing fourth at 184 pounds at the NAIA tournament.