Nunavut Wrestling had another road trip in recent days and you know that meant a good chance at something resembling a medal would be coming home as part of the return goody bag.
They didn’t disappoint.
A group of seven athletes from Cambridge Bay, Arviat, Iqaluit and Pangnirtung hit the mats at the Alberta Open in Sherwood Park, Alta., on March 19 and 20 and there were three brand new pieces of neckware sported following the competition. Two of those medals came courtesy of Cambridge Bay’s Eekeeluak Avalak, both of them silver. Avalak competed in two divisions — senior men’s 61-kg and junior men’s 57-kg — and ended up falling just short on both occasions to the same opponent in each gold medal contest: Talon Hird of the Edmonton Wrestling Club out of the University of Alberta.
Chris Crooks, Nunavut Wrestling’s head coach, said the silver medals were a great result, considering Avalak was moving up into an older age category.
“I knew about the level of competition before going into it,” he said. “I put Eekee in both the junior and senior categories to give him some competitive matches, something we don’t get a lot of up here. We talked about it and the goal wasn’t to go out and win it but he got some real good experience and some tough matches.”
The third medal was won by Davey Akat of Arviat, who scored himself a bronze medal in the boys U19 110-kg category.
It was his first big competition outside of the territory and Crooks said he looked real good.
“He would’ve been on our 2020 Arctic Winter Games team but that got cancelled, of course,” he said. “He was our biggest wrestler and had some tough opponents, some real big guys. What impressed me was how quick his feet were for a big guy.”
There were also several close calls, including Kaaju Arreak of Iqaluit, who was fourth in the junior men’s 79-kg weight class. Kiana Ekpakhoak of Cambridge Bay also just missed the podium as she was fourth in the girls U19 61-kg division while Chasity St. John of Arviat was another fourth-place finisher in the girls U19 73-kg weight class. Jonah Kunilusie of Pangnirtung was fifth in the boys U19 55-kg category and Jusipi Dimitruk of Cambridge Bay had a top-10 result in the boys U17 60-kg weight class.
Before the meet, Crooks took the crew down for a week’s worth of training at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, which was a mixture of on-mat work and fitness.
“It was a chance for them to get into shape, especially for the wrestlers from outside Cambridge Bay,” he said. “They really haven’t had a chance to get into a gym and work out whereas in Cambridge Bay, our kids are on the mat as often as we can get them out. It was rough at the start but they came around.”
That showed in each of their matches, he added, as there were no shutouts at all.
“They were scoring points and that gives them confidence,” he said. “We did the best we could to get them in shape and you could tell the confidence was there once they started scoring. You can’t replicate practice but everyone’s coming along. People still don’t believe me when I tell them Eekee has had about 50 proper matches in his five years in the sport.”
Something else Crooks had was an apprentice coach in the form of Jonah Haulli from Iglulik, someone who’s been involved in the sport in Nunavut for several years and who is a former pupil of Crooks.
“I coached him at the Arctic Winter Games in 2018,” he said. “I’m trying to get more coaches into the system because I’m getting long in the tooth but I’ll support them as much as I can and give them chances.”
When they weren’t wrestling, the athletes got the chance to take a tour of the University of Alberta and learn about the Transition Year Program, which is for Indigenous students looking to make the jump into university.
“Every time we travel, I always try to set up some sort of excursion and I thought this would be a good way for them to see what options are open to them for education,” said Crooks. “We had an Indigenous tour guide and they got to see everything that’s here for them.”