Akihiro Matsumaru is from Japan and Sol Kislig is from Switzerland. Neither knew what to expect when they arrived in Hawaii as foreign exchange students at St. Joseph.
Matsumaru, a sophomore, and Kislig, a junior, are competing in Big Island Interscholastic Federation track and field, running the same events — the 1,500 and 3,000 meters — after successful cross-country debuts.
Though both are novice runners, they qualified for the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state cross-country championships in October on Kauai.
Kislig was 15th and finished the three-mile course in 19 minutes and 44.71 seconds. Matsumaru was 59th and clocked an 18:00.94. They beat runners from the BIIF and state with far more experience.
In Switzerland, there are no high school sports. There are club teams and Kislig wore gym shoes and played floor hockey three times a week.
As a runner, Kislig is a greenhorn, maybe doing three or four community runs a year back in her hometown of Worb.
She’s a veteran compared to Matsumaru, who’s from Tokyo. He grew up playing table tennis under the wing of his grandmother.
Both hope to qualify for the state track and field championships, slated for May 9 and 10 at Kamehameha-Kapalama on Oahu, before they head back to their home countries in June.
Matsumaru has only run in the season-opener at Konawaena on March 15. Kislig has run in all three meets. Saturday, at Hawaii Preparatory Academy, she was second in the 1,500 and 3,000.
Kislig arrived in August through the Rotary Youth Exchange program while Matsumaru came in July through his school’s transfer program. Both had adventure on their minds.
When she was 11 years old, Kislig, who speaks Swiss-German and French, thought about what it would be like to experience a different lifestyle, improve her English and live on her own. Friends of her family had done similar programs and regaled her with tales of their youth.
Matsumaru’s case was somewhat similar. His older sister, Eri, was a role model. She went to Canada, became fluent in English, and made her brother want to follow in her footsteps.
Both have 3.86 grade-point-averages at St. Joseph. Matsumaru is thinking about someday starting a trade company between the United States and Japan or getting in some sort of business enterprise. Kislig is hoping to be a travel correspondent.
Both have discovered vast differences between Hilo and their home countries. For one, St. Joseph has 60 students in high school. Their home schools have enrollments of 1,200 students.
“We have the Alps, huge mountains where you can go skiing, but it’s landlocked,” Kislig said. “In Switzerland, you can go anywhere with public transportation, trams, trains, buses. Here you always need a car with your host family. I’ve hardly ever eaten rice. We eat pasta.”
Said Matsumaru, “It’s like everything is opposite. Here you don’t have too much traffic, and you can see the stars at night.”
The biggest difference both pointed out is the people.
They practice with Hilo High but represent St. Joseph. To get to practice, they pass a crossing guard at Hilo Union. He often strikes up a short conversation with the two Cardinals.
“He’ll talk to us and it’s something we enjoy,” Kislig said. “One time Aki was sick and he asked, ‘Where’s your boyfriend?’ I said, ‘He’s not my boyfriend.’ Then he said, ‘Well, he is a boy and he is your friend.’
“That would not happen in Switzerland. The most you would say is ‘Thank you’ when you cross.”
Both have benefited from the generosity of their host families. Kislig has visited waterfalls and taken surfing lessons. Matsumaru enjoys grocery shopping, taking a liking to Hilo’s Farmers Market.
Not only have their eyes been open to new things, but their hearts as well.
“I’ve learned to be friendlier,” Matsumaru said. “If you don’t talk to people, you don’t get to know anyone. St. Joe is tiny. I like the intimacy. You get to know everyone.
“You don’t talk to strangers in Japan. The people are friendlier here. It’s made me more open.”
Kislig has a 14-year-old brother who plays sports. When she returns home, he’ll hear about the aloha spirit and the family atmosphere at St. Joseph.
“For sure, I’d encourage him about the transfer program and tell him to come here,” she said. “You can learn something about yourself. St. Joe is a little family. Everyone knows everyone. It’s been a really good experience. That’s something I’ll tell him and I like adventure.”