'Happy to be home,' says Nunavut wrestler who arrives to a celebration

Eekeeluak Avalak of Cambridge Bay received a hero's welcome when he returned to his western Nunavut home Monday with his coach, Chris Crooks, and teammates.

'He should be proud and the whole community is proud,' says Jim MacEachern

Eekeeluak Avalak holds up his gold medal at the Yellowknife airport Monday, en route to Cambridge Bay. The community is planning a celebration for his arrival. (Juanita Taylor/CBC)

The Cambridge Bay airport erupted in cheers, and tears, Monday as Eekeeluak Avalak entered, bearing the territory's first ever medal — Gold — from the Canada Summer Games. 

"Happy to be home," Avalak told CBC News shortly after his plane landed in the western Nunavut community. 

The 18-year-old wrestler, known affectionately as Eekee in the community of about 2,000, defeated Alberta's Fred Calingay on Thursday. Avalak became only the second athlete from Nunavut to win a medal at the Canada Games, and the first to secure Gold.

The first medal was won by Eugene Dedrick, who earned a bronze in judo at the Canada Winter Games in Whitehorse in 2007. 

Eekeeluak Avalak gets a warm reception at the Cambridge Bay airport. (Juanita Taylor/CBC)

"It's fantastic," said Cambridge Bay's chief administrative officer, Jim MacEachern, earlier Monday of Avalak's win. "He should be proud and the whole community is proud."

Elders, family and friends, members of the RCMP, Canadian Rangers and some soldiers in town for Operation Nanook-Nunakput all planned to be at the airport when Avalak and his teammates and coach, Chris Crooks, arrived around noon, MacEachern said.

Supporters gather to pose with Avalak. (Juanita Taylor/CBC)

Outside, horns honked and people cheered as vehicles decked in Nunavut flags plowed through the hamlet in celebration.

A celebration was planned at the Luke Novoligak community hall with time for autographs and photos, said MacEachern.

Wendy Kootoo-Wood has called her son a "true warrior."

He dedicated his win to his late brother Joanasie, who would have recently turned 27. He died by suicide in 2015.

Horns honked and people cheered as Eekeeluak and his teammates were honoured with a parade in Cambridge Bay. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Chris Crooks, who has been coaching wrestling for more than 40 years, told the Canadian Press he first met Avalak when he was teaching Grade 6.

"Amazing athletic ability is the first thing I noticed," Crooks said. "As time would go on, dedication, discipline and a drive to accomplish something."

A hamlet truck takes part in the parade celebration Avalak's gold medal. (Juanita Taylor/CBC)

Crooks said the gold medal win shows the strength of youth in the North.

"Even though we come from small fly-in communities, you can achieve and you can set goals and see them obtained despite circumstances that may not be as easy as here in the southern part of Canada."

In preparation for the festivities, volunteers decorated the community hall with signs saying, "Congrats Eekee, making Nunavut proud." A Nunavut flag will be available for people to sign greetings to Avalak.

In the evening, a big community celebration is planned, with a feast, drum dancing, square dancing and fireworks.

Eekeeluak Avalak, centre, poses with fellow medalists Fred Calingay, left, who won silver, and Zubin Gatta, who won bronze. (Leah Parker/Canada Games)

The welcome-back celebrations are taking place under mainly sunny skies, with a temperature of about 16 C — much better than last week when the community was battered by high winds.


Jane George is a reporter with CBC Nunavut. Prior to August 2021, George worked at Nunatsiaq News for more than 20 years, winning numerous community newspaper awards.

With files from Juanita Taylor, Kate Kyle and the Canadian Press