GALLIPOLIS, Ohio — A lifelong passion can take you places.
Former Gallia Academy standout and current St. Catharine College sophomore Cole Tawney recently enjoyed a once in a lifetime wrestling experience after participating in an excursion to Russia as part of the 2016 Freestyle Wrestling Invitational Tour.
Tawney — a three-time state qualifier and three-time SEOAL champion while at GAHS — spent two weeks in the heart of the old Soviet Union as a member of the Brian Church USA Wrestling club, whose coach is Silver Level certified and a veteran tour leader with USA Wrestling.
During those 14 days, Tawney met some of the best wrestlers from his own country while also competing against some of the finest grapplers on the Asian continent.
This trip was meant to serve not only as a test between some of the best wrestlers on the planet, but also to allow all who participated in the event to appreciate the universal respect between the competitors.
The cost of the experience wasn’t cheap, as Tawney had to produce close to $3,000 for his two weeks in Russia. Thanks to extra help from his hometown, he was able to fulfill a more than memorable dream.
“This trip really helped me in a lot of ways,” Tawney said. “The first thing I learned was how much my hometown had my back in helping me with donations for this trip. It also helped me with my wrestling because I learned quite a few things over there that I am eager to try using in the upcoming season.
“Also, in being over there as a competitor, I was able to learn a lot more about the Russian culture than say a normal tourist in a hotel might learn. It really opened my eyes to see some of the differences between our two cultures, but it was definitely an experience that will always stay with me.”
In discussing some of the differences between the United States and Russia, a few everyday things immediately popped into his mind … rather it be lack of ice for cold drinks or the fact that instead of hot dog stands in public venues, the Russians sold corn on the cob wrapped in bacon.
He also noted that the very first thing he wanted when he returned to the state was an ice cold water.
But, as rough as some of that may sound, his two weeks wasn’t all bad. In fact, between the sightseeing tours and some of his accommodations … it was exactly the opposite.
It also helped that wrestling is a fan-favorite sport in Russia.
“It wasn’t all rough. I remember staying at one of the coach’s mansions and it was close to a four million dollar home, complete with therapy equipment and training facilities,” Tawney said. “Another time we stayed at a place that was built around a large cut-down oak tree, and that stump served like a picnic table. All the food was set out on it and we all just sat around it like a dinner table.
“The Russian community really loves wrestling, and we were treated like royalty during our time there. We get off the train or our of a car and not once did I ever have to carry my bags. I just remember feeling very respected and it was a cool experience, no doubt.”
Tawney also got a taste of foreign culture one night following a day of competition, which ended up being something that he may or may not volunteer for again if given the chance.
“There is a Russian tradition where they slap you on the back with birch leaves to help alleviate pain and stress,” Tawney said. “Honestly, it’s not the most pleasant feeling at the time … but I absolutely did feel better the next day.”
Between visiting historic landmarks such as The Kremlin, shopping in Moscow and also taking a tour to St. Petersburg, Tawney was able to take in such sights that so few from the United States will ever see.
As much as he enjoyed that part of the trip, however, he said the one constant — the most gratifying thing to come away with — was the competition he shared with his opponents from another land.
“I know I am biased, but I feel very blessed to have been able to meet so many different people from all walks of life and still know that all of our differences didn’t matter once we got on the mat,” Tawney said. “To be able to share the mat with another wrestler is one of the greatest bonds you can achieve in this sport because each of us knows what it took to get to where we are.
“There is a lot of respect earned in suffering through a match with an opponent. Regardless of where you are from, it is that struggle that leads to the bond that opponents share. You learn a lot about someone between hand shakes before and after matches.”
Cole is majoring in Elementary Education at St. Catharine College.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.