LA GRANDE — Several La Grande wrestlers took the world by storm this summer.

That is not in reference to nearly going back-to-back as 4A state champions, but to the seven La Grande wrestlers participating in a Northwest Cultural Exchange two-week trip to Europe in late August. The Tigers wrestled against foreign competition and traveled through several countries in Europe during the two-week excursion.

“It was a life experience for those kids to see the world. It was really awesome,” La Grande wrestling coach Klel Carson said.

The group traveling from La Grande to central Europe with the coach consisted of Wyatt Livingston, Cole Shafer, Braden Carson, Dominick Carratello, Brysen Penaloza, Kai Carson and Joshua Collins. As part of the Northwest Cultural Exchange, the crew from La Grande joined wrestlers and coaches from other schools around Oregon and Washington.

The wrestlers spent a week training in Austria before heading to Germany to compete in Frankfurt (Oder). Along the way, the team met with former Olympians and competed against wrestlers from Austria, Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic and Russia.

“The wrestling was a lot different,” said Collins, an incoming junior. “It was great to learn, and it was great to understand the culture behind their wrestling.”

The La Grande wrestlers adjusted to the Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling that is more standard in Germany and Austria. According to senior Braden Carson, the athletes he faced were sound wrestlers who took their time and moved defensively.

“Most of the guys were very experienced and wrestle year-round,” he said. “The age range is also different over there, so I was going against some guys that were in their 20s and 30s.”

In his first time out of the country, Penaloza learned from the contrasting wrestling styles and even competed against a 50-year-old wrestler.

“They taught me some things that we really haven’t used because it was a much different type of wrestling,” the junior said. “It was a little different in the beginning, but we got pretty used to it after a little while.”

Olympic perspective

Another takeaway for Penaloza and the La Grande wrestlers was interacting with Olympians and other top competitors. Collins noted that he met a handful of wrestlers who had come within one match from qualifying for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Alongside Klel Carson, former South African Olympian Shaun Williams was one of the coaches on the trip. Williams, the head coach at Central Valley High School in Spokane, Washington, wrestled at the University of Oregon and competed in the 2004 Olympics. While in Germany, the cultural exchange group was guided by three-time German Olympian Sven Thiele. The athletes stayed in some of Europe’s premier wrestling facilities and were able to receive advice from elite wrestlers. Not only did the La Grande wrestlers meet elite competitors, but they were also able to compete against top-notch opponents.

“A lot of the kids got to wrestle against kids that are placers in European championships and world teams,” Klel Carson said. “They got to go against really high-level competition, so it’s just awesome all the way around.”

Coming together as a team

For the wrestlers involved, the trip did more than improve their wrestling skills. The cultural exchange group created bonds across opposing teams in the region, and the experience tightened the chemistry within the La Grande squad.

“It was a good team-building experience. We all got to explore Europe,” Collins said. “I got to know my teammates a lot better and it was a great trip with them. They were supportive the whole way, and made it a fun trip.”

According to Penaloza, all 17 wrestlers taking part in the trip got along well throughout the two weeks spent together. For Collins, the trip gave him an expanded view of work ethic and training habits.

“Mentality is huge,” he said. “Your mentality goes with everything because you have to be strong.”

The La Grande wrestling team is coming off a runner-up finish at the Class 4A state championship this past spring. Following a once-in-a-lifetime team experience this summer, the Tigers will be looking to use that boosted chemistry to bounce back and reclaim the top spot in the state.

The Northwest Cultural Exchange trip gave the athletes a new perspective on wrestling and other cultures.

“It was a pretty amazing experience for those kids,” Klel Carson said.

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