"How did you spend your summer vacation?"
A pair of UW-Eau Claire wrestlers have an almost unbelievable answer to that common question.
Blugolds Justin Karkula and Robert Rocole spent the first 12 days of their summer as part of the Division III Wrestling Cultural Exchange program. They lived, trained with and competed against Olympic wrestlers from the Russian and Venezuelan national wrestling federations in an Olympic training facility in Moscow.
Along with head coach Tim Fader, the wrestlers traveled to Moscow during the first week of June to represent UW-Eau Claire, one of five NCAA Division III schools participating in the exchange.
Fader, the Division III cultural exchange coordinator, said he attempts to arrange these trips every summer to other destinations, which have included Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. Baldwin-Wallace College (Ohio), Norwich University (Vermont), Johnson and Wales University (Rhode Island) and Rhode Island College also sent wrestlers.
Fader, Karkula and Rocole first flew to Amsterdam, where they were able to do some sightseeing before their next flight to Moscow. They spent their second day at the first training session, where they saw immediate differences in training and wrestling styles.
The Russian national coach was very intimidating, despite his 5-foot-2-inch stature, Fader recalled. He would start practice the same way every day, by shouting, "Line up!" with a heavy Russian accent. All the wrestlers would line up against the wall and the coach would put his hands on his hips and stare at the men for about 2 minutes. Finally, the coach would yell “Warm up!” — which officially began practice.
This, Fader said, was only the beginning of the culture shock the American wrestlers experienced throughout the trip.
“The Russians were very attentive and the Americans were kind of in shock, like ‘Wow, this is so different,’” Fader said of the first training session they had with the Russian coach and wrestlers.
Every training session was spent learning techniques new to the American wrestlers. Each of the men were paired up, one American and one Russian wrestler, who would teach the American new holds and techniques.
“It was certainly a hands-on experience, and you kind of had to learn different ways to communicate other than talking,” Fader said, referring to the language barrier.
For Rocole, a senior kinesiology major from Lakewood, those sessions were the highlight of his trip, and he can’t wait to bring his experiences back to Eau Claire for a successful final season.
“The guys were at such a high level and they know so much, so they taught us so much. Even the moves we knew, the Russian wrestlers had a different way of showing us, of teaching us. So much is different within the technique," Rocole said. “It was just an amazing experience in that aspect — to be able to bring it back to my own style of wrestling, and to bring that back to my senior year is just a great thing to have.”
Karkula, a senior kinesiology major from Oshkosh, said he enjoyed broadening his knowledge of the sport further.
“Russia is one of the best places in the world as far as wrestling, so it’s nice to see what they do compared to what we do over here,” Karkula said. “I’d like to coach wrestling, so to make connections, meet new people and talk to them, especially the coaches, was great.”
Most importantly, however, Fader hopes Karkula and Rocole carry out the new skills they developed while training with Olympic-level wrestlers, and he himself looks forward to moving forward as a coach.
“As a coach, to get to see how the coaches react to their athletes, I’ll bring some of that on my side, as well as some of the techniques the wrestlers learned,” Fader said. “And on the guys’ side, they’ll bring the experience and the maturity. I expect that they’ll both have really good years."
Karkula and Rocole also were able to compete against the Russian and Bulgarian wrestlers they trained with. Although the Americans only won three matches out of the 50+ matches they competed in, Rocole said they still had fun and were able to take a lot out of the experience.
“Since wrestling is like their whole life and we’re trying to jump into a new way of thinking about it, we kind of got whopped a little bit,” Rocole said. “But they were good at what they do, so it was definitely a lot of fun.”
Karkula was able to compete against a Venezuelan wrestler who will compete in the Rio Olympics this year.
“Getting to compete against probably some of the better wrestlers from around the world was a highlight,” Karkula said. “That was a really cool experience. Not a lot of people get to say that.”
When they weren’t training, the Americans socialized with the Russian wrestlers, swapping clothes and listening to music, in addition to sightseeing in the city.
“The cultural experience was incredible,” Rocole said. “Just seeing how different their lives are compared to ours, different driving and language, different ways we live … little things were kind of eye-opening.”
Photo caption: Blugold wrestlers Robert Rocole (left), Justin Karkula (center) and coach Tim Fader explore Moscow, where they participated in the Division III Wrestling Cultural Exchange program.