Wrestling helps kids in Cambridge Bay grapple with big issues

Wrestling changed Eekeeluak Avalak’s life. The 15-year-old from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, said he was headed down the wrong path until he stepped onto the mat.

Wrestler Eekeeluak Avalak says he hasn't been in trouble since he started practising

'Wrestling is a very individual sport but yet you can't do it without your teammates,' says coach Chris Crooks. (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

Wrestling changed Eekeeluak Avalak's life.

The 15-year-old from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, said he was headed down the wrong path until he stepped onto the mat.

"Before I started, I was not the person that you see today," he said. "I was getting into trouble, getting suspended from school. And since I've started wrestling, I switched that all around for the better."

The sport keeps him busy both physically and mentally, he said. His mom is happy with his interest in it, too.

"My mom does not want me to miss one single practice. She's also noticed that it changed my life. She told me that she could see me as an Olympic champion for wrestling if I stick with it."

Wrestler Eekeeluak Avalak says before he started wrestling, he had heard of WWE and UFC but he didn’t know about freestyle wrestling. (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

This change has a lot to do with his wrestling coach, Chris Crooks.

"He talked to us and disciplined us with this and encouraged us not to get into trouble," said Avalak.

'The sport will never die'

Crooks said it's inspiring to see kids like Avalak succeed.

"To see the difference it makes, to have their parents talk about the difference it makes, it makes it worthwhile for me," he said. "And for them to see that hard work pays off and that with hard work can come success, it gives purpose and it makes me believe in what I'm doing."

Crooks has been teaching wrestling for over 40 years, so when he came to Cambridge Bay in August 2015, he knew he wanted to keep teaching.

It showed me that I can do anything I want if I put the effort into doing it.- Wrestler Aislyn Omilgoetok

But there were some challenges to overcome that first year.

"We didn't have a wrestling mat," Crooks said. "We had some little mats we Velcro-ed together."

That first year, he took two kids to the territorial championship. At the most recent championship, he took three boys and three girls. 

"My goal is to try to make it sustainable. So I'm continually preaching from the pulpit about giving back, and that you've got to continue it, and that I can't be here forever, like, I am old as it is. So that if they continue, the sport will never die."

Passing the torch

Aislyn Omilgoetok, 16, is already thinking about taking over the coaching when Crooks retires.

"I think that I'd like to stay in wrestling and maybe in a couple of years or so help Chris coach," Omilgoetok said. "He can't be young forever and he needs younger people helping, too."

She said it's important to her to help the younger people in her community learn the sport so they can have the same good experience she had.

"It showed me that I can do anything I want if I put the effort into doing it," she said. "It's more of a way of finding your body's strength and your self awareness."

Wrestler Aislyn Omilgoetok says learning the sport was scary at first but now she wants to help the young people who come after her to learn. (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

Omilgoetok and Avalak aren't the only students who have seen positive changes since getting involved.

"I know that before this, there is a lot of people who were kind of down and wrestling kind of helped them get back up," Omilgoetok said. "It's like the more they came out, the more they felt welcomed and they wanted to come out more, and it really made them more happy."

Avalak's advice for kids who were in his situation?

"Step a foot on the mat. You'll probably hate it but you'll love it once you get used to it."

With files from Rachel Zelniker and Ashleigh Mattern