They left Monday for a 10-day visit, competition and immersion program in Japan

   Lake Oswego residents Austin Kirk and Michael Smith will be among a group of 12 local gymnasts headed to Sapporo, Japan, for an innovative athletic exchange program.

During their 10-day visit, the athletes — ranging in age from 13 to 18 — not only practice and compete with their Japanese peers, but also absorb the culture through home stays and sightseeing trips.

In addition, they will present a letter from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler to the Mayor of Sapporo at a special reception. The Royal Rosarians gave the group a diplomat's send-off at Portland International Airport on Monday.

"Youth exchange continues to be a cornerstone to the long-term vitality of the sister city relationship between Sapporo and Portland," said Michael Bacon, president of the Portland-Sapporo Sister City Association. "The Portland-Sapporo Sister City Association is thrilled to endorse the 12 gymnasts from the MAC and other Portland area teams as junior ambassadors from the Rose City as they exchange with our friends of Sapporo in the spirit of sportsmanship and goodwill."

Kirk, Smith and three of the other gymnasts are from the Multnomah Athletic Club, five athletes are from the Oregon Gymnastics Academy in Beaverton, and two gymnasts are from the National Academy of Artistic Gymnastics in Eugene.

"This will be my first time out of country," said Kirk, who has been competing in gymnastics for the past 11 years. "I am really excited about competing internationally and learning about a different culture."

Sponsored by the Northwest Gymnastics Association, the exchange program was first held in 1986 when the Sapporo Gymnastics Federation sent a delegation to perform in the Rose Cup Invitational gymnastics tournament. They visited several more times between 1987 and 1990, and in 1991, the NWGA took a delegation back to Sapporo. Since then, several exchanges have been held both in Portland and Sapporo.

MAC gymnasts have been a part of every exchange since the program's inception. "This program is not just about sports," said Shuichi Goto, the MAC gymnastics coach who will serve as leader and interpreter for the group. "It is about cultural immersion."

Rob Saliski, MAC Gymnastics head coach agrees.

"These kids get to work in an international environment, they see how other gymnasts train, how they act in the gym and during competitions," he said. "Plus, they have the opportunity to see how other athletes live and how they see the world. It is a terrific learning experience."

The delegation includes: From Multnomah Athletic Club — Brennan Kane, 14, Beaverton; Kirk, 16; Caleb Martindale, 16, Portland; Adrian Rodriguez, 16, Vancouver, Washington; and Smith, 18. From the National Academy of Artistic Gymnasts — Malakai Gaines, 14; and Will Taylor, 15. And from the Oregon Gymnastics Academy — Jenna Anderson, 13; Aubrey Braun, 13; Sophia Brinker, 13; Noa Rahat, 13; and Aubrey-Ellen Smith, 13.

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