Individual sport unites international friendships
Like many 11-year-old boys, Ekke Leithman spends his free weekends planning sleepovers with his friends. Robin Krivmen claims to be a pop culture expert and listens to Billy Joel, Metallica and Toto. Max Hristjuk is a talented motocross rider. Karl-Eerik Karoles enjoys playing with airsoft guns. Karlis Ander All makes trips to the skate park after school.
Despite being a 15-hour plane ride apart, these Estonian boys have found common ground and have built lasting friendships with wrestlers of Revolution School of Wrestling in Spring Valley. Though wrestling is an individual, isolated sport, it's what gave nine Estonian boys the opportunity to meet lifelong friends from across the Atlantic Ocean during their week in Pierce County.
Maja Casey, the owner of Revolution, traveled to Estonia three years ago when he and his son Caleb attended the Tallin Open Youth Wrestling Tournament. While there, they met Kristjan Press, the four-time Estonian Greco-Roman wrestling champion who also owns his own wrestling club. Casey and Press instantly connected and began planning a trip for Press and his wrestlers to make their way to Wisconsin to train with Casey's wrestlers and experience life in the United States' Midwest.
"It was pretty neat. We started talking and then we started planning and we'd say, 'Is this going to happen? Is this going to happen?'" Casey said. "But we totally made it happen, and what a friendship we have created."
Press brought a group of wrestlers over in the spring of 2017, and after a successful jaunt, returned in 2018 with even better wrestling skills, more fluent English and a better understanding of life in America.
"It's basically like what you see in the movies," Krivmen, the pop culture guru, said. "Now we get to experience it and paint our own picture. In the countryside, everybody knows everybody, which is quite true. There are a lot of pickup trucks, too."
Krivmen also tagged along for the 2017 trip, and said there are many benefits of traveling at a young age. One being getting more comfortable with the nerves that come while in a foreign place, a skill that can also be useful on the wrestling mat.
"I think it's important to experience different things and travel," Krivmen said. "If you travel and go far at a young age, you'll get used to it. Wrestling is such a nerve-wracking sport, but when you travel to different countries for wrestling you get more comfortable with the different experiences."
While in Spring Valley, the Estonians woke up early and trained two times a day. This demanding regimen was nothing new for the young mat rats, though.
Hristjuk is the great grandson of Martin Klein, Estonia's Olympic silver wrestler who won the longest wrestling match ever recorded in 1912 at the Stockholm Olympics. Klein's match lasted 11 hours and 40 minutes. Hristjuk trains twice a day back in Estonia with the hopes of one day being as well-known as his ancestor.
Though they don't have organized school sports like their Wisconsin friends, the young Estonians have lofty goals of one day winning world championships and becoming Olympic medalists. Six of the nine boys will compete in the European championships in June.
Those familiar with Wisconsin wrestling know how much time and effort wrestlers dedicate to their beloved sport beginning at a young age. By doing so, wrestlers gain confidence when they step onto a mat, relying on no one but themselves, and respect for those who join them in their sport, whether they're across the mat or across the world.
"The kids gain self-confidence, self-worth, self-defense," Casey said about wrestling. "It's self, self, self, self."
"Yet, wrestlers still somehow stick together, all over the world," Press said.
"We respect each other, don't we?"
"Yeah, because you know what we have to come through."
Casey and Press' mutual respect for each other and the sport they love has ignited an overseas partnership they plan to continue in the coming years. Casey hopes to return to Estonia in 2019 to train with Press. If all goes as planned, his Wisconsin wrestlers may be able to tag along with him to get a glimpse of life in Estonia.
In the meantime, the two coaches and their wrestlers will settle for talking weekly over FaceTime and Facebook, creating tighter friendships thanks to the individual sport they love.
"We're going to continue this," Casey said. "This is --," he paused. "This is the coolest thing ever. I mean, how we connected and made it happen, it was just meant to be."