Wrestling: Mixing with Kiwis team highlight

By Kelly Exelby

They took home their share of the spoils but it is the cultural experience that has been the most enriching aspect of Los Angeles- based coach Kyle Iwanaga's tour of New Zealand.

Iwanaga's 12-strong junior team from the Southern California Wrestling Association mixed it with the locals at the weekend for the Bay of Plenty championships. But rather than what they brought to the mat against their New Zealand rivals, the 44-year-old from Orange County said exploding the insularity of most Americans' world view would have the greatest impact.

"These kids, two who've never been on a plane before this trip, will truly go home with a huge world perspective from our time here and my big hope before coming, and something I sold the trip on, was that it would spark an interest in that there's a big world out there to visit.

"Life's more than just America, or even the city you live in, so rather than just reading about it or studying it in the classroom, get out there and see it."

Iwanaga is an experienced visitor downunder and knows how most New Zealanders, and the rest of the world, view his country.

"If you open a paper in the US there's no world news and no knowledge of world geography beyond our country's borders ...

"From our kids' perspective it often doesn't stretch much beyond that as far as knowledge goes.

"What makes a trip like this special is not actually coming to a different country or experiencing new food, like kangaroo [in Australia] or hangi, but getting out and living with the people in their communities.

"We could have stayed in hotels the whole way, going from there to the gym and back again, but people have taken us in and haven't wanted to give us up so we could go to the next town.

"In the same way it's been like travelling overseas and staying in hostels - you meet a million people and make a million contacts.

"I don't know if these kids will truly appreciate the experiences they've had here until a few more years down the track."

Iwanaga's wrestlers won five Bay of Plenty titles yesterday in junior, senior and Greco Roman, with the Katikati club winning eight and national coach Mark Grayling's Mt Maunganui club taking home four titles.

Iwanaga said they had had to get schooled up on New Zealand's Olympic-style scoring system against the folk style taught in the US high school system.

"It's been a huge adjustment, and even though we coached it before we came, at our first dual meet we made a lot of technical mistakes just because of the different strategy and scoring.

"Every tournament since we've gotten better, so from a wrestling aspect that's good."

Iwanaga said wrestling was as big as it has ever been at high school level thanks to the explosion of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), which had given the sport far more exposure.

"As far as I'm concerned MMA isn't a dirty word. A lot of wrestlers are good MMA fighters and people see it and bring their kids along to wrestling.

"I've got no real issue with it, but the only downside is that a lot of the elite guys after college go to MMA because of the stardom and the money on offer, as opposed to being poor and chasing a spot on our Olympic team.

"MMA won't get you to the Olympics in London or to Rio in four years' time but there's where we've really been hurt; in that four-year Olympic cycle."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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