Nelson Mandela once said that sports have "the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand."
In many ways, the Washington Cultural Exchange has been living, breathing proof that despite cultural barriers; despite language barriers; despite everything that is different between two people, sports can be a vehicle that brings them together.
Since 1986, the WCE has sent precisely 8,690 students and student-athletes to countries across the world, allowing for children of uniquely different backgrounds to come together over, as Mandela said, "sport."
Don Helling, the boys' and girls' swimming coach at Sehome High School, has been a part of the nonprofit organization since 2000 when he made his first trip to the city of Guang Zhou in the Guang Dong providence of China. The aim, he said in a phone interview, "is on cultural exchange."
"The first thing that really hits you in the face is how different the cultures are, but very quickly, once you get to know the kids individually and you meet people over there, what really comes out is how similar we are," Helling said.
Helling's groups eventual form up to create a dual meet of sorts between his swimmers and swimmers from China. As is often the case, what starts out as swimmers confining themselves to their respective sides of the pool over time turns in to a collection of athletes merging into one another.
"We were swimmers. ... We all shared this wonderful love of the sport," said Amber Iverson, a graduate of Sehome in 2005 who made the trip to China as a freshman in 2001. "(We) were instant friends. At the minimum, you have things in common. Athletes, in general, have similar experiences. You all struggle through the same challenges of injury; really, really early-morning workouts. It's a natural jumping-off point."
Iverson's group got the particular experience of swimming against some of China's Olympic-level swimmers. As she said, it wasn't much of a competition, but more an experience that she hasn't forgotten 12-years removed.
"They kicked our butts, (and) with good reason," she said.
The trip embodies more than a venture to the pool, or swimmers bonding with one another over their shared love of swimming, Helling made note of. It's a chance for children to be removed from what they know as normal, and be thrust into a lifestyle vastly different than their own. Even Iverson, who had experience traveling beyond the homely confines of the United States when she was younger, found it astounding that upon stepping foot in the streets of Hong Kong, locals wanted to take their picture.
"Almost everywhere we went, people wanted to take pictures with us because we were American," Iverson said. "You kind of get pulled out of being reserved."
The typically 10-day long trip is a yearly endeavor, Helling said, with this year's aligning with spring break for the 35 swimmers he will be joining. And while registration is largely solidified for this year's trip, further opportunities and more information about the trip can be found at the organizations website, wce.org.
Reach Alex Bigelow at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-715-2238. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for Whatcom County sports updates.