Nunavut wrestlers bring home silver and bronze medals
'It felt good to be back on the mat,' says Eekeeluak Avalak
With a couple more silver wrestling medals in hand, Eekeeluak Avalak is already looking forward to future competitions.
The 18-year-old from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, is fresh from competing in the Alberta Amateur Wrestling Association's open tournament on March 19 and 20, where he placed second — twice — against older and more experienced wrestlers.
"It felt good to be back on the mat, especially having my other teammates in my corner," Avalak said.
"[That] made it a lot more enjoyable and a lot more fun to compete, knowing I have my fellow Inuit along my side."
Avalak has been wrestling since he was 12. He regularly competes at tournaments — in February, he placed second in his weight and age class at the wrestling association's 2022 Junior Olympics Wrestling Tournament in Calgary.
He's got plenty of irons in the fire for May and June, including world trials and nationals in Edmonton.
"It should be a good one," he said of those upcoming events. "A lot more competition, which I think I'm ready for. It should be fun."
Chris Crooks, who coaches wrestling in Cambridge Bay and heads the Nunavut Amateur Wrestling Association, said he brought seven wrestlers in total to the Alberta open — three from Cambridge Bay, two from Arviat, one from Iqaluit and one from Pangnirtung. An apprentice coach also joined them from Igloolik.
Aside from Avalak, Davey Akat from Arviat placed third in his event, bringing home a bronze medal.
Crooks said the competition was a significant one for his team, in large part due to the impact Nunavut's COVID-19 lockdown had on athletes.
"With that comes a lot of mental health issues within the communities, so the ability to leave and experience something, and to compete and train — it's really huge for the athletes," he said.
For Crooks, the highlight of the Alberta open wasn't the medals. It was seeing the athletes encourage each other, no matter their wrestling ambitions.
"Some of them are very high-level athletes that are looking to go to nationals, and some are just wrestling for the enjoyment. So to see them support each other, I think, is one of the most positive things that I enjoy," he said.
Crooks moved to Cambridge Bay seven years ago on a teaching contract, and started up the wrestling club there soon after he arrived.
He's been working to help people in other Nunavut communities become coaches, so the wrestling clubs there don't rely on people coming up from the South to coach.
He said he has also helped create an environment where Nunavut wrestlers can go out independently and train by staying with billet families.
"It's a lot of logistics and they develop a lot of independence, confidence and discipline," he said.
Bringing the athletes out to other communities also helps develop them and gives them new experiences, he added — the last time they went to Edmonton, he took them to talk with an Indigenous recruiter at the University of Alberta. He's taken them to museums and schools, too.
As a group, they'll sometimes spend their evenings during competitions on mini-workshops for budgeting, cooking or relationships.
"We're always trying to broaden the horizons, give them not only an athletic experience but an educational experience," he said.
"There's a lot of character-building that goes on."
With files from Amy Tucker