MCAS FUTENMA, OKINAWA, Japan --
Approximately 170 youth wrestlers from the local and military communities on Okinawa gathered at the Semper Fit Gym on Marine Corps Air Station Futenma May 13 for the Okinawa Open Championship.
The Okinawa Open Championship is the largest youth wrestling tournament in Okinawa. Youth wrestlers from the local Okinawa Wrestling League, and the military community’s Gladiator Wrestling League all traveled to compete on the Semper Fit Gym’s mats.
Youth wrestling in the military community started out small and has grown rapidly in recent years, according to Chief Warrant Officer Nathan Rogers, the incoming president of Gladiators Wrestling.
“Parents wanted to give children the opportunity to experience wrestling in an environment that’s safe for them,” said Rogers. “Wrestling has never been something where everyone gets a trophy. In other sports, the team carries the weight of the successes and losses on their back but in wrestling it is just you on the mat.”
However, language is not the only barrier for these wrestlers, they practice with two completely different fighting styles. The Okinawan Wrestling League utilizes freestyle wrestling while the Gladiator Wrestlers utilize folk style, each with their own scoring system.
Melanie Stofka, the former president and extremely involved mother who volunteers with the Gladiator Wrestling League, acted as the liaison between the local wrestling dojo and the on-base league.
“The Japanese coach stressed his adoration for the American sportsmanship,” said Stofka. “The American youth are always fast to shake hands and hug. They love to express when their opponent did a good job on the mat. The local youth are more reserved. They just shake hands and walk off. They watch the matches quietly, awaiting their turn. The American kids see this discipline and want to emanate it.”
“Wrestling is one of the toughest sports,” said Ezekiel Duran, coach of Gladiators Wrestling. “There is no rest. You have to constantly be pushing, or pulling and it takes a lot of heart. Seeing all of these kids out sweating and working hard brings the community together, it allows us to interact with our hosts, laughing and watching what our children do on the mats. We bond in unity through sport.”
The end goal is that the children are not scared of unknown opponents anymore, according to Stofka. Whether the Gladiators continue to host the local residents at championships, or they play together in their free time, Stofka and the other parents hope that the relationships will continue to flourish.
“It isn’t just wrestling,” said Stofka. “It’s life. The language barrier is gone, any fear about unknown opponents, or any reservations disappear because they are just children on a mat.”