When wrestler Eekeeluak Avalak stepped onto the mat in Ontario this month, there were no great expectations.
Put simply, he didn't take any victory for granted – tournaments in the south draw on a wider range of competitors and can often test new athletes. He passed those tests to the tune of three golds in three consecutive tournaments.
"Going to these tournaments in the south and I'm just some Inuk that went and just dominated almost everyone," Avalak said about the trip south where he and four other athletes travelled with their coach, Chris Crooks of Cambridge Bay, across southern Ontario, training, competing and watching the Olympic trials.
Crooks had emailed all the Ontario coaches, inspired by an old wrestling coach who took some youth across the Midwestern states for meets. "When I first thought about it, I thought about him," he said.
The wrestlers started in Toronto Tuesday morning, after arriving on Dec. 2, training in a YMCA in Coburg, before driving to Ottawa to pick up athletes arriving from Baffin. After some more training, they saw their first tournament, the Thorold Traditional Tournament, that Thursday.
Everyone was able to win matches at the tournament, but Avalak won a gold in the boys 54 kg and Ezekial Kilabuk took home a bronze in 47-kg class. Afterwards, they went to the Olympic Trials in Niagara Falls Thursday night, Friday and Saturday evening, all while training and touring. They then trained with the Guelph University team on Sunday.
The Tuesday after, the youth did presentations on Inuit life in Coburg, where the youth would field questions from attendees about living in the north. They did this again in Hamilton, all while training.
All together, the youth did roughly a dozen hour-long talks. At one presentation at a school, Crooks said the youth received celebrity treatment. However, the attention – food, gifts and donations to the Cambridge Bay Wrestling Club, all of which was welcome – was also tiring by the end.
Crooks had done a trip south before, where he noticed some youth were intimidated or hesitant with the change of scenery. This time, the youths competitive drive pleased him.
It also carried the opportunity of seeing what life was like in the south for youth considering the move.
On Friday, they competed in the Bishop Ryan tournament again, where Eekee received another gold. The Matmen tournament followed that on Saturday, which featured roughly 600 athletes in Brampton.
"I didn't know what to expect, but the fact that we were competitive in all three tournaments, that everyone was competitive, I'm pleased with that," Crooks said, explaining southern wrestlers will often compete regularly in meets while the Nunavut wrestlers won't have one for an entire year.
The scope of several regions competing in a single tournament is simply rare, he said.
While there's a lot of natural ability, it's hard to develop in a box, isolated from wider tournaments.
"It's an eye opener for some of them. For those who haven't really travelled much, don't understand how competitive it is outside of the territory," he said. "So you could be a territorial champ, but not score a point in a tournament."
To address that, Crooks emphasized mental toughness as well as extra physical training.
"It's hard to say you have to do more when you're top dog (in Nunavut)," he said.
However, it did come as a surprise when Eekee Avalak proved a staunch competitor in every match, securing three golds in three tournaments. "I didn't expect he was going to be as dominant as he was," Crooks said – referencing one difficult match where he had scored with moments left to tie it.
Some of the matches weren't as tough as he expected, Avalak agreed and gave him the opportunity to face-off against different kinds of wrestlers. Though, he was hoping for more competition.
He recalled a few wrestlers who he "dominated" approaching him later. They said they would always check for fresh faces at future tournaments, to spare themselves another surprise.
"That felt pretty good," Avalak said.