By Chad Otterness
Tuomo Karilla was a foreign exchange student in 1985-86, attending Canby High School via Finland. One of the best “recruits” to ever come to Minnesota. After high school, he went on to become a two-time Olympic Greco-Roman Wrestler.
Karila’s host brother, Anthony Birk, shared some recollections from that time:
Tuomo was an experienced wrestler when he came to Canby as an exchange student in 1985 at the age of 17. The previous year he had taken the Bronze Medal wrestling Greco-Roman in the Finnish National Championships and also wrestled Freestyle. However, he had never wrestled folkstyle.
Our family had a wrestling mat in the basement, and from the time he arrived until the start of the wrestling season, Tuomo practiced and studied the rules of folkstyle wrestling. By the time the season started, he had begun to adapt quite well but still used a lot of Greco-Roman techniques.
In his very first match of the season, he met Terry Ochsendorf at 167 lbs. Ochsendorf would go on to become the 167A state champion that season. Tuomo lost that first match but wasn’t discouraged.
He would go on to take three losses on the season. The first to Ochsendorf, the second to a state champion wrestler from Milbank, S.D. (at 185 pounds), and the third to Randy Pauly of Cold Spring-Rocori (1986 state runner-up at 167AA).
During the season, Tuomo suffered a knee injury, and he underwent arthroscopic surgery over the Christmas break. He missed a few matches but was back on the mat before tournaments began.
He was selected to compete for the Minnesota All-Star team in the Minnesota-Wisconsin Classic following the state tournament. He went on that spring to wrestle in the Central Regional Greco-Roman championships in Chicago and the Central Regional Freestyle Championships in Madison, Wisc. He was also named to The Guillotine’s Academic All-State Team.
Tuomo, what brought you to Canby, Minnesota as an exchange student in 1985? Was wrestling part of the reason you came to Minnesota?
I was a so-called late bloomer when it comes to starting wrestling since I found the sport as late as 12 years old. Normally boys start wrestling when they are 7 or 8. We don’t do competitive sports in schools, only physical education a couple of hours a week. So, I went to a wrestling club when I was 12, and to be honest, I was not a very promising wrestler. Though, I was a hard worker from the very beginning. I won my first national title in the 17-year boys’ category during the same year when my mom decided to send me to the US as an exchange student to learn English.
I come from a single mom family with one sister. We lived in a suburb of Helsinki. I just had started Finnish high school, and my English was just so bad. So, my mom provided me with that exchange year. I came to the US with the commercial company ASSE, and my mom had to borrow money to pay the fee. Luckily, we got a small scholarship due to my mom’s low income. At that time, you could only express a wish about what kind of place they would try to find you. So, you could end up anywhere in the USA, in any state or town. My only wish was a place where I could continue wrestling. I had never before been to the US, nor did I know anyone from the US. I had not competed outside of Scandinavia.
So, in August of 1985, I landed at Minneapolis airport with 13 other students and a chaperone. And there was my host family, Sharon (mom) and Kelly (sister) Birk, waiting for me with a sign with my name on it. So, my main interest was to learn the language.
What were some of the challenges adapting to folkstyle?
Luckily, my Finnish coach had been competing in the Tokyo 1964 Olympics in freestyle, so he made us compete in both Greco and freestyle. Most of the guys only trained Greco. So, I did not find it extremely hard to adjust my freestyle techniques to folkstyle. During that time there was a very good coach called Gerry Gingles who was able to advise me how to cope with folkstyle. Also, assistant coach Bill Bredeson spent quite a few hours with me. Luckily, they had a guy from Norway a year before, so they knew how to handle these overseas kids.
I was pretty physical for my age, so I could control guys with my hands, and I guess that confused Minnesota boys while wrestling with me. I even competed at 185 during the beginning of the season, and Coach Gingles tried to make me compete at 167 pounds during the late season, but I insisted on 155 pounds. Though in the state tournament, I wrestled 167 pounds in the team competition. I guess mat wrestling was not for me in folkstyle, so I just let the guy come up and took him down again. During that year, I broke the season’s takedown record.
How was the experience of living in a small farm community with a strong wrestling background?
My mom comes from a very rural area of Finland, and her parents were peasants on a small farm. That farm was run by my uncle, where I had spent all my summer holidays before I started wrestling, so adapting to Canby as a city boy was not hard. Those fanatic wrestling fans in Canby were just amazing; the Birk family was one of them. Of course, that made my year easier and just amazing. I had never experienced that excitement for wrestling before I went to Canby, nor after that year.
What were some of your successes wrestling for Canby besides winning an individual and team state championship?
I guess that whole year was something special – the whole experience was successful. I grew up so much during that year.
You wrestled in two Olympic Games in Greco-Roman? Describe that experience.
I have represented Finland in seven Olympic games, twice as a wrestler and four times as the team doctor. So, I competed twice (1992 and 96). In 1988, I was a stand-by in youth camp in Seoul, Korea, and four other times I’ve been the team doctor and wrestling team leader. Sportswise, I did not place in the Barcelona or Atlanta Olympic Games. In Barcelona, I was in 74kg, and I barely made my weight. After Barcelona, I went up to 82kg, but in Atlanta, I just wasn’t in top form and failed to place. There was a bit of drama before the tournament since my roommate didn’t make his weight, and he got a heat stroke. Somehow my mind wasn’t just focused. Otherwise, the games are always just an amazing experience for all team members – some much, very profound feelings and emotions. It is just unbelievable how a whole city goes mad from sports – the atmosphere is something you can almost feel with your hands and taste in your mouth.
Dick and Sharon Birk came to cheer me in Barcelona in 1992, and Tony Birk, Gerry and Todd Gingles came to Atlanta in 1996. The community of Canby has always stayed in my heart. It gave so much to a young kid from a totally different world.
What has been your most recent involvement in the United World Wrestling organization (UWW) since your competition days?
Mostly, I’ve been involved in medical stuff – a couple of times been a chief medical officer in Europeans and Worlds. I also did my share for Finnish wrestling by being a president for the federation. Two years ago, I decided not to run for a second term since I was simply getting too short of time, but I still take care of our wrestlers every day by fixing them and advising to prevent injuries. It was wonderful being involved in the Canby community! Thank you to the Birk family, the coaches, and the whole Canby community for your support!
Photos courtesy of Tony Birk and Tuomo Karilla.