By MATT KOESTERS
When Indiana State Wrestling Association coach Danny Struck arranged for a group of local wrestlers to travel to New Zealand, he told them it would be an experience they’d never forget.
He didn’t know how right he was.
“All of the hiccups are going to be the part that makes it,” Struck said. “We told the kids before we left that this is not going to be a vacation. It will be an adventure.”
Struck and the ISWA state team members finally got back to Louisville on Sunday, a full week after they were expected to return. The homecoming was marked by loud cheers and tearful embraces from the family members gathered at Louisville International Airport welcoming their loved ones home.
The problems for the Indiana wrestlers — which included grapplers from Jeffersonville, New Albany and New Washington — began at the start of their trip when a volcano in Chile spewed forth an ash cloud that caused their layover in Los Angeles to go from about three hours to 36 hours. Once the team finally got on a plane, they thought that it would take them to Auckland, New Zealand, but the ash cloud diverted the plane.
“When we got on the plane, everyone went to sleep because it was a 13-hour flight, and when we woke up, they said, ‘You’re in Sydney, Australia,’” Struck said. “‘The volcanic ash came through and we had to divert you.’”
The team tried to make the most of the trip. ISWA assistant coach Tom Dolly took the team sightseeing. The boys got to see the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney Bridge and got to wrestle with local talent from a fight club at Sydney University. Despite the members of that club being in their mid-20s to early-30s, the team did well.
But on Struck’s end, things looked bleak. After spending four hours on hold with the airline the first day they were in Sydney, the ISWA chief spent the most of the rest of his time at the airport, desperately trying to arrange for the team to go to their original destination in New Zealand.
“It was easier just to go to the airport,” Struck said. “On the fourth night, we told the kids, ‘Hey, we’re not going to New Zealand unless miraculously we walk in and the flight actually leaves.’ Literally, we told the kids to be packed and ready to go to the United States, and then the plane actually left.”
Once the boys finally got to New Zealand, the wrestling trip seemed to be back on track.
“I was relieved,” Jeffersonville wrestler Jacob Everett said. “I was ready to get there and win. I was hungry for some medals, I and I ended up coming back with one.”
The team took first place at the Auckland City Championship, and each of the boys on the trip won at least one match, Struck said. Everett placed third in his class, wrestling 18-and-over wrestlers because of the way age divisions are handled in New Zealand.
New Albany’s Austin Jamison went 1-1 against the country’s national champion in his weight class.
“He did very well,” Struck said. “He actually had some of the most exciting matches. He got second and third, and he was wrestling 25-year-olds.”
The success continued in the city of Katikati, where the president and coach of the country’s national team reside. The Indiana wrestlers went 17-4 at a dual meet.
“They seemed a little better on top in freestyle, because we do folkstyle so much,” Struck said. “On their feet, it’s so similar, we beat a lot of guys on their feet.
“Being a country of only 4 million people, our state is bigger than their whole country [population-wise]. Our kids were really prepared. Even when they’d wrestle a national champion, they’d do really well. That would be like wrestling a state champion here.”
When the team arrived in Auckland, Struck extended the trip three days, thinking that the problems were over. But the ash cloud wasn’t done causing trouble for the Indiana wrestlers.
To get around the ash cloud and avoid being forced to stay in the country for another week, Struck decided to put his team on a flight to Los Angeles via Hong Kong, 11 hours in the wrong direction. When the team finally returned to Louisville, it was after more than 24 hours of air travel.
“It was a great experience,” Struck said. “The worst problem we had with a kid was one of them was a minute late to a practice. The kids were outstanding. They never once complained.”