Willy Bangsund is a local legend. A wrestler and a coach, who according to many locals deserves a medal for being the best peace worker in the region. He is well known for coaching and arranging wrestling tournaments for Norwegian, Russian and Finnish young people and for having crossed the northern borders innumerable times arranging meetings for transcultural exchanges.
Always curious about other people’s cultures and history, Willy loves talking to new people. He is constantly working on passing this curiosity on to his young wrestlers. “I want them to really understand the importance of co-existence and understanding other people, since this really is the essential part of creating peace. It is of such major importance. And it is especially important to pass this on to the children.”
Willy took us to the Norwegian-Russian border at Storskog for the day’s shoot, the only legal land border crossing from Norway to Russia and a border Willy knows like the back of his hand. As we were spending the day with someone just short of being a real life superman, we had prepared for a cape of appropriate proportions and headed for the border with our car boot full of bright red rowan tree pomes.
Originally a trained car mechanic, Willy was born in Vardø and lived a good decade in Nøtterøy before moving to Kirkenes in 1970. Here he found his wife and got a family, and here he founded his wrestling practice and career. He has been an active wrestler himself and even won the Norwegian junior championship in 1962. “Wrestling is a fantastic sport. You get to develop and train all the muscles in the body. And it is a fair sport. And most of all it is that sense of self discipine, moral and justice – those three things are the things that count.” © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen
The rowan fruits are often called berries, but a berry is a simple fruit produced from a single ovary, whereas a pome is an accessory fruit – perfect! © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen
Rowan tree’s bright red fruit is great food for birds and this year they are particularly plentiful. It is believed this forecasts a very snowy and cold winter to come. © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen
While we drive around in our little rent-a-wreck, Willy prefers his trusted Hiace bus which according to him has ran more than 1 million kilometers. He reckons very few people down south have any idea what it takes to get a sports club going under these conditions, with driving distances up to 900 km, driving through the coldest areas of the Nordic countries with 30-40 degrees below zero. His coldest memory was a -50 degree trip to Inari in Lemenjokki. © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen
Willy could tell us how the wrestling culture has always been present in Kirkenes. It is an old club, dating back to 1929, and they were in contact with Finland and Sweden already in 1932. But it wasn’t very active until Willy came to Kirkenes. It was too small of a club to get any national champions out from the region, so he decided it was time to get out there and compete with the Finns and the Swedes to get the levels up. And then the exchange started with Russia also, since they were the largest wrestling nation. That’s how they got the activity up and running again and managed to raise the level. Today Kirkenes has about 40 Norwegian champions, even a world champion in women’s wrestling, a European champion and several medals. © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen
This year will be the 70th anniversary for the Oktoberstevnet wrestling tournament. For Willy, the kids are his driving force; “when I see they get personal results, when they gain self esteem and start trusting themselves, and when they learn to know other countries and cultures through all the traveling. That is result enough for me. If any of them get to win a title, it’s an added bonus.” © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen
Seeing how the kids understand more about themselves, how they progress, is what keeps Willy going. “And another thing, you have the best one, the number one, and then you have the last one, who always loses. But he can be a social number one, the joker and the social glue. Not to mention the importance of that when we travel as much as we do…when we slam down 900 km in the darkest winters to go to Oulo in Finland for a tournament – they are tough little ones, I tell you. I don’t know of many other kids who would do that. Sometimes it is even a case of driving all the way down to Happaranda, do a set of two 20-second matches and that’s it – only to hit the road and drive all the way back. Now that’s learning life.” © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen
Chicken wire, cable tires and arctic temperatures make a very uncomfortable combination. But we now know it’s all about self discipline, moral and justice. © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen
Willy has never considered what he is doing to be a political project. He is mostly hoping that the kids get to experience what he did, to be able to go discover the world at an early stage, and to learn to know other cultures and other nations, and most importantly, to learn the history and the changes that have happened from the past and up until today. © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen
© Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen
We lift our hats to Willy © Karoline Hjorth & Riitta Ikonen