The day the Ukraine came to MU

Charles Strunk ’97x doesn’t remember the guy’s name anymore. Twenty-two years is a long time, after all. Things slip away.

What doesn’t are those few swift seconds when, briefly, he stared down world class and became world class himself.

The year was 1995, the place was Manchester College, and Strunk, a 118-pound sophomore wrestler, was paired against a Ukrainian who’d placed third in the world the year before.

Strunk trailed 6-3 in the last round, and the clock was draining fast. Less than a minute remained when the Ukrainian came at him in a rush – and Strunk saw his chance.

“I remember he was trying to go for a single (single-leg takedown), and I popped up and I hit him with a headlock, and that was it,” recalls Strunk, now an engineer with United Technologies in Huntington. “I pinned him.”

It was a memorable highlight of a memorable several days at Manchester, and not just for Charles Strunk. The visit of the University of Ukraine wrestling team – it spent three days on campus in early November – was both a unique sporting opportunity and a cultural exchange that meshed well with Manchester’s commitment to a deeper understanding of other cultures.

“I just remember thinking it was a really neat opportunity, and really to me kind of spoke to what’s possible at Manchester, to have this team from another country and another culture,” remembers MU wrestling coach Kevin Lake ’98, who was a freshman and Strunk’s training partner at the time.

“After the competition I remember interacting with them a little bit,” Lake recalls. “I think some of them spoke a little bit of English, and they understood some English, but not a lot. Still, it was very enlightening to see people from another culture, because I hadn’t even left the country let alone had those kind of interactions.”

The wrestling side was enlightening, too. The Ukrainians’ style, Lake remembers, was different than Manchester’s, more technical and fluid than the more physical style Manchester coach Tom Jarman taught.

“There was a real obvious contrast,” Lake says. “So it was kind of neat to kind of see that clash and see the difference.”

The Ukrainians, who wrestled several Big Ten schools on their Midwest tour, won every match but two that day at Manchester. Strunk and Manchester heavyweight Nick Primozic ’98 were the only Spartans to win their matches.

It augured well for what was to come. That season Manchester would win its fifth straight Indiana Collegiate Athletic Conference title and finish 22nd in the NCAA Division III Nationals. And Primozic would finish third at nationals.

For Strunk, beating his Ukrainian opponent, who defeated several Big Ten opponents on the Ukrainians’ tour, would remain a highlight of his career. 

“I remember the night before, I wasn’t even gonna wrestle, but then Coach talked me into it,” Strunk recalls. “And so I ended up dropping the weight and wrestling that guy.”

To his lasting good fortune.

By Benjamin Smith