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Japanese Wrestling Team Comes to Missoula Big Sky For Cultural Exchange

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For a group of wrestlers in Missoula, the joy of the sport is the same…the aches and pains are the same…and the dedication is the same…but what is different, is their surroundings. A group of Japanese student athletes are taking part in a cultural exchange with the Big Sky wrestling team, the first one to happen for the program in decades.

"When I first mentioned it, they thought 'what?' I explained to them what it was, and the values of it, and they're excited about it. The families are excited about it, and they help out a lot as well," says Big Sky head coach Lanny Bryant of when he told his team about hosting Japanese wrestlers.

The level of the young wrestlers from Japan is serious as well, with many of them nationally ranked in the top five of their respective ages and weight classes.

"They are really the top level kids in Japan, and I think they are ready for the adventure, but at the same time they are really nervous," says Japanese Interpreter and current Missoula resident Yoko Ichimura.

While they didn't appear nervous to be on the mats at all, as the Big Sky wrestlers met the Japanese athletes when they arrived at the airport, there was certainly some confusion as neither team spoke the same language.

"They showed up at the airport, and we weren't really sure what to do. It was kind of like 'we don't speak the same language, but let's try to communicate with each other," says Big Sky senior Luke Entzel.

"These Japanese kids come over here to America, and come to Montana, where they see all the cowboys Movies and stuff like that," adds Bryant with a smile.

For the Japanese team, there are some differences in training. In Japan, they practice for nearly four hours a day, which is substantially longer than the Montana kids, and they do so in a gym that doesn't have any air conditioning or heating, and the wrestlers themselves were impressed with the physical size of Montana grapplers.

"Coach was surprised the wrestling room was big, and the kids were surprised the (Montana) kids are tall and huge," says Ichimura.

Tomorrow, the Japanese wrestlers will take on some of the best athletes from Big Sky as well as surrounding high schools. While the quality of competition will be tremendously high, the high scholers know it's about more than just facing a different opponent.

"It's awesome to see something that our small town or our nation does is a world wide thing, and it's loved by people around the world, and people work hard around the world at the sport," says Entzel.

"Montana in general is really warm hearted. I think the kids are welcomed and hosted in the Big Sky kid's families, so great things are already happening," says Ichimura.

For multi-sport standout Luke Entzel, he's embracing the opportunity to be a part of a different culture, but he's also jealous of next years team, as they may return the favor and go to Japan for the next cultural exchange.

"At the same time, I'm glad it's my senior year, but I wish it was my junior year, because I think we're going down there next year, so to keep this going and keep the Montana/Japan connection I think is huge for the exchange and opening up our cultures," says Entzel.

**Due to MHSA rules, the Big Sky Eagles were not allowed to practice or train with the Japanese team, however they'll square off in an exhibition wrestling match Tuesday evening**

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