Lack of competition in Korea hinders Seoul American wrestlers
Every year, for 11 years, it’s been the same slow, frustrating process for coach Julian Harden and his Seoul American Falcons wrestling team.
He has the athletes; only Kubasaki of Okinawa has had more Outstanding Wrestlers in Far East tournaments — nine to Seoul American’s six. He has the trophies; the Falcons have won every Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference title but one since he took over the program in 1993.
But Harden says to be successful, high school wrestlers need preparation. And he contends the Falcons don’t get nearly what they need.
One other KAIAC school — Osan American — fields a wresting team. The two schools have four dual meets. Otherwise, there’s only daily practice sessions in the martial arts room of Seoul American’s Falcon Gym.
There, Falcons work out with other Falcons, day after day after day.
All dressed up, almost nowhere to go and almost nobody else to wrestle.
Said senior 158-pounder Herald Oertwig: “It’s just us, every day, day after day, until we go to Far East. Not knowing what our competition is going to be like. Not knowing what we have to prepare for.”
KAIAC wrestling’s shoestring existence far predates Harden’s arrival. Denny Hilgar, who coached wrestling at Seoul American for five years, remembers when Taegu American was the Falcons’ only opposition; Osan American didn’t open until 1995.
Hilgar gave it up in 1985 out of frustration, he said: “On average, you run a team of 20 to 30 kids. In all the years I coached, they [Taegu] never had more than 10 … and that varied weekly.”
Since Osan opened, Seoul American has been comparatively fortunate: It had two opponents. But this year, Taegu failed to field a team.
That Seoul American has roughly 600 students while Osan and Taegu have about 125 each hasn’t helped. First-year Osan coach Charles Tadlock began the season with 14, which has diminished to 12.
The lack of interest has prompted discussion about U.S. high school wrestling’s future in Korea.
“We’ll continue to keep it as part of the program,” DODDS-Korea assistant superintendent Dennis Rozzi said. “But it’s difficult for Seoul American, which generally has a kid in each weight class. It’s always a challenge at the other two schools.”
Harden has been consistently able to fill most or all his weight classes. But what he’d really like is to travel to Tokyo, where six Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools teams — with, among them, a combined 18 Far East team titles — compete.
But DODDS-Korea doesn’t fund trips to in-season tournaments outside of Korea. So Harden has turned to private organizations, such as the American Chamber of Commerce or a spouses club, for donations.
The year the Falcons posted their best Far East finish, second place in 1998, donations were in abundance and the team traveled to in-season tournaments on Okinawa and the Philippines.
But a trip to Tokyo would cost an estimated $7,000 and, Harden said, he’s already asked many of his contributors to fund a DODDS-Korea All-Star football team’s trip to Singapore in the fall. “I couldn’t very well turn around and ask them for help again,” he said.
Seoul American’s basketball teams have played tournaments against military company- and post-level teams, but wrestling’s full-contact nature has made similar arrangements taboo. Army Regulation 215-1 prohibits competition between youth and soldiers, according to 8th U.S. Army sports director Tom Higgins, though area commanders can grant waivers.
“I would really like to see the kids get to wrestle,” he said, but “you have to be wary” that a student doesn’t get hurt.
Whether other schools in the KAIAC, comprising four DODDS-Korea schools and six international schools, will somehow come to the rescue might be a long shot, league president J.P. Rader of Seoul Foreign said.
The last wrestling by an international school in Korea came when Rader was a student, and Seoul Foreign’s program shut its doors in 1980.
“It hasn’t been an agenda item” at KAIAC league meetings “because there hasn’t been a lot of interest,” Rader said. “It might be something we can explore to see if there’s any interest.” Otherwise, he said, “this could completely die.”