US students grapple with ash cloud disruption

By Kelly Exelby

When US-based coach Danny Struck sold a 10-day trip to New Zealand to his state's top grapplers as a chance to "experience the world through wrestling", he didn't fully appreciate the implications of what he was saying.
The eruption of Chile's Puyehue-Cordon-Caulle volcano threw the group's first-ever cultural exchange to New Zealand into complete chaos, to such an extent that the wrestlers finally got on the mat in Katikati last night, a week late and several days after they were already due home.
The eruption, which began on June 4, caused air travel mayhem worldwide, with Struck saying his group of 17 felt the full effect soon after leaving Indiana more than a week ago.
They arrived in Los Angeles via Chicago expecting a two-hour layover before their 12-hour direct flight to Auckland - but were stuck in transit in the City of Angels for a day-and-a-half before the ash-laden clouds cleared enough to take to the skies.
But even then things didn't go according to plan, with Struck saying he woke up just as his Qantas flight was descending into Sydney, not Auckland.
"None of these kids had ever been to California let alone overseas and all of a sudden we ended up in Australia," the Indiana state coach said. "We'd waited long enough in LA already so I thought nothing could possibly go wrong on the flight to New Zealand."
The group was just about to get on a connecting flight to Auckland when it, and many others, was cancelled at the last minute, causing widespread chaos and grounding an estimated 5000 passengers.


Four nights, several hotels and dozens of Facebook messages back to worried parents in the US later and the wrestlers finally arrived in Auckland on Sunday. Four wrestlers and a coach boarded a plane a day later back to the US to compete in a pre-scheduled major state meet.
Struck said it was ironic the destination of the cultural exchange had changed from Japan, where they'd been going annually for 25 years, to New Zealand after the March 11 tsunami.
"Tidal waves, earthquakes and now a volcanic eruption - we've been holding our breath since we got here waiting for a hurricane to hit, although maybe we shouldn't joke."
Struck set up communication with parents back home via a Facebook page in which he'd provided daily updates on the group's situation. Because they were on a tight budget and were expecting to be billeted most of the way they left home with limited cash resources, with the four nights in Sydney wiping them out.
"We did just about every form of attraction possible in Sydney and even found a club to wrestle at, although we walked a hour-and-a-half to get there and were up against guys mainly in their 20s and 30s (Struck's team are aged from 13-18)."
He hopped on a bus out to the airport at least once a day to check on flight availability to Auckland, although because the stopover was unplanned there was initially no provision to move them on to Auckland.
A wrestling trip to Mongolia last year proved as eventful, with a stopover in Beijing almost ending in disaster when a motorcyclist stopped the team bus on the way to the airport in an attempt to scam cash. "Because we were only in China on 24-hour visas, missing our flight to Mongolia would have meant almost certain arrest, so after many failed attempts to get the moped driver to shift I got off the bus and threw it off the road."
They wrestled in the Auckland champs on Sunday, a few hours after touching down, but a tournament had to be shelved.
The Indiana wrestlers trained with the Katikati and Mt Maunganui wrestling clubs and had also been taken out for a day's fishing and to Rotorua for a taste of culture prior to last night's tournament. They had also spent a day at Katikati and Mt Maunganui Colleges with their host families.
"These kids will return home better wrestlers, but more importantly, they've got to experience a bit more of the world than we'd originally planned."

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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