Wrestling Culture Exchange

Who: Central Oregon all-stars vs. Japanese all-stars

Where: Crook County High School, Prineville

When: 6:30 p.m.

Admission: $6 for adults, $4 for students

Tonight at Crook County High School in Prineville, Michael Hageman will make his way to the center of the mat and toe the starting line.

Opposite the Bend High senior will stand a wrestler from Japan. They will prepare to face off — young athletes from two coasts of the Pacific Ocean meeting inside an inner circle 3 feet in diameter.

They speak different languages, live in different cultures. But when the referee starts the match tonight during the Wrestling Culture Exchange — pitting a Central Oregon all-star team against a touring all-star squad from Japan — Hageman and his counterpart will communicate in a universal language: wrestling.

“When you blow that whistle, both guys know what to do,” says Bend High coach Luke Larwin, one of four coaches for the Central Oregon all-stars. “When you throw up your hand, everybody knows that two fingers means two points. It’s absolutely common in that way.”

Tonight’s installment of the Wrestling Culture Exchange, presented by Restore College Wrestling Oregon, will continue the nation’s longest tradition of wrestling culture exchange programs, which dates back to 1963.

Crook County’s involvement goes back to 1967, when Cowboy wrestler Woodward suited up for the Oregon squad that traveled to Japan and logged the only undefeated record for an American during that trip. More than 45 years later, a Woodward will once again take the mat in culture exchange competition.

“It’s a really cool thing to be a part of. I’m honored to be able to do it,” says Crook County junior Clark Woodward, whose grandfather is Brick’s brother. (Clark is known to many as “Brick” — his great-uncle’s namesake.) “It’ll give us a common interest and make some international friends that you wouldn’t have the chance to otherwise. It’s an honor to even get to wrestle them. It’s an honor to continue a tradition like that.”

It is an honor, echoes Crook County coach Jake Huffman, who is also a coach for the Central Oregon team. And it is an opportunity for on-the-mat education.

“Our kids have a tough test of ahead of them. But it’s great because they’ll learn,” Huffman says. “They’ll learn probably different techniques and different ways to approach the sport of wrestling. There’s nothing but positive things that can come out of it as long as you have the right attitude.”

“You gain a lot of experience,” Woodward says. “You get to see what other countries are like, and it just gives you more cultural experience than it ever will wrestling.”

Central Oregon wrestlers will meet and interact with their Japanese counterparts off the mat as well, especially with the visiting squad’s athletes and coaches bunking up with Central Oregon host families for the night.

Hageman understands the barriers that will separate him and his teammates from the Japanese — linguistic and cultural. But that does not take away from the significance of this day, as the universal language of wrestling (and technology, as Huffman notes) provides a bridge to communication.

“It’s still a fact that you get to interact with another wrestler from another country that makes it worth trying to get through that language barrier,” Hageman says. “I see it not just from an American wrestler’s point of view, but also from the Japanese wrestling point of view. I get to interact with another wrestler from another country on opposite sides of the world from us.”

And it will not just be Central Oregonian wrestlers becoming familiar with another culture.

Chuck Holliday, a 1962 Crook County High alumnus and coach of the Oregon wrestling exchange team that went to Italy in 1980, will provide Team Japan with a taste of the Wild West earlier today, including a trip to a cattle ranch and to a local log mill.

“We’re not big-city life,” Holliday says. “We’re kind of down to earth. I think they’ll stop and look at it a little bit. I doubt very much that they’ve ever seen very many cows at all or horses being used. … They’ve never probably seen a sawmill and seen the effects.”

“It’s not only a learning experience for wrestling,” Hageman says, “but for all you know, you could make lifelong friends through this.”

Therein lies the true purpose of the Wrestling Culture Exchange, even if it does take place in the middle of the high school season.

“If I looked at it the wrong way, I could say it’s a bit of a distraction and kind of a pain in my neck,” says Huffman, the Crook County coach, referring to the timing of the exchange meet. “But at the same time, if you look at the bigger picture, that’s not what it’s about.

“It’s about getting young people to get to know each other and get to know each other’s culture, and hopefully maybe grow into something that one day, one of our guys will make a connection with one of these kids and go visit them sometime. If you look at it in those terms, it’s pretty exciting.”

And it is a chance to show each young wrestler — Central Oregonian and Japanese alike — how special and how valued wrestling is.

“It’s a way to see what the rest of the world is doing. And they’re doing things that are the same as us, as wrestlers just here in Bend, Oregon,” says Larwin, the Bend High coach. “Even though we’re in Bend, Oregon — we’re in this one little part of the world — there’s other kids who are training and working on the same things, maybe it’s even the same moves, in a different language, in a different place, in a totally different setting. Sport brings us together.”

—Reporter: 541-383-0307, glucas@bendbulletin.com .