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Don Gleason

GLEASON

Competing against a team of Japanese all-stars in January 1977 in Ronan, little did Don Gleason know that he was wrestling a future Olympic silver medalist. 

Seven years later, Gleason's opponent — Takashi Irie — would win the silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics at 105.5 pounds. 

During that snowy winter 40 years ago, the Japanese team made a stop in Ronan as part of a cultural exchange wrestling visit. Gleason said the dual between the Ronan team and the Japanese was contested in freestyle and that the visitors won nine of 10 matches.

"I got beat by him," said Gleason, Billings West's wrestling coach from 1983-1989. "I felt like I wrestled him good. We were scoreless at the end of one period. In the second period, he got me and pinned me. ... He was too tough."

The United States' Bobby Weaver would defeat Irie in the gold medal match. When Gleason found out his opponent was competing in the Los Angeles Games, he made sure to follow the outcome.

"My old head coach (at Ronan), Dave Edington, was at the 1984 Summer Games working with the wrestling down there," recalled Gleason. "I made sure to tune in and watch all the matches I could. They don't show a lot of wrestling, but the matches I could find we tuned into. I actually watched his gold medal match and he lost to a wrestler from the U.S. I actually got to watch that match on TV and it was fun and brought back a lot of memories." 

For two days, the Gleason family hosted one of the Japanese all-stars when Hitomi Shintani stayed at the Gleason home. While there wasn't much venturing out due to the weather, there was plenty of camaraderie. And, when some of the host families did take their visitors outdoors, they ended up sport shooting.

"We spent a lot of family time with them. They were very tired from all the travel. He was really happy to sit and talk," said Gleason. "They liked all the food. We were afraid of that, not knowing if they would like what we fed them, but they liked all the food.

"Ronan in January is a tough time to try and entertain kids. You can't do all the outdoor things they like to do. One of the guys took one of the kids skeet shooting. We took them out shooting .22s and that type of thing. They really liked that. They said they don't get to be a part of that in Japan. That was a big thing to them, enjoying shooting."

Gleason, who retired after the 2014-15 school year after 31 years as the athletic trainer at West and 33 years at the school as a health teacher, will be the athletic trainer Wednesday night at Medicine Crow Middle School, when the Japanese national high school team will dual the Eastern Montana All-Stars at 6:30 p.m. 

Since Gleason found out a Japanese cultural exchange team would be visiting the Treasure State this month, he dug out some of his old keepsakes from 40 years ago. He still has the program from the dual, complete with the signatures of the Japanese wrestlers and coaches, and banners the teams exchanged as gifts. Shintani also gave Gleason his team sweatshirt, complete with his name embroidered on the sleeve. 

While wrestling will bring the two teams together Wednesday night, the evening will be more about experiencing new cultures, friendship and memories.

"I just really hope a lot of people come out to watch," said Gleason. "It's just a great thing, not just for the sport of wrestling, but to have a different culture and community and be able to share a few things. We are going to start off with some Indian dancing. I have a good friend (Walter Runs Above) who does Indian dancing and he'll do that as a lead in after the national anthem. It will be fun. It will be new for the Japanese kids and it may be new for the people here. It will be a lot of fun."

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Deputy Sports Editor

Sports writer for The Billings Gazette.