Eekeeluak Avalak made history on Thursday, giving Nunavut its first-ever gold medal at a Canada Games, with a dominating win on points in the wrestling 52-kg weight class.
It was an emotional and popular win that had the packed gym on its feet at the Walker Sports and Abilities Centre as Avalak, 18, from Cambridge Bay raced around the mat in victory and jumped into the arms of his coach Chris Crooks. Even the opposing coaches left with smiles on their faces.
“I didn’t see myself winning no medal, I just came to compete and have fun and here I am the first Inuk from Nunavut to win a gold medal at the Canada Summer Games. I’m just so happy.”
Alberta’s Fred Calingay won silver and Ontario’s Zubin Gatta took bronze.
Avalak dedicated the win to his late brother, Joanasie, who died by suicide in 2015 and would have been 27 this week.
“Happy belated birthday to a special person up in heaven,” was the first thing Avalak said as media surrounded him. “This is for you, and I know you’re watching over me and I love you brother.
“Feels great,” he continued. “History’s been made. Couldn’t have done it without everyone around me. My teammates. My father-figure right here: my coach (Crooks). It’s just beautiful to be a part of it. I’m just happy.”
Avalak entered the competition as a legitimate medal hopeful, the Canadian U19 freestyle bronze medallist in the 55-kg weight class, opting to drop down to 52 kg for this week rather than up to 56 kg.
Nunavut first sent a team to the 2001 Canada Summer Games in London, Ont. Its only medal before Thursday was a bronze in judo at the 2007 Canada Winter Games in Whitehorse.
“It’s momentous,” said Nunavut chef de mission Jeff Seeteenak just before Avalak accepted his medal. “This is our first-ever medal at the Summer Games and hopefully this will show our kids that we can compete. … He’s a good kid and he’s openly said that wrestling saved him and that’s the power of sport.”
Avalak also carried the Nunavut flag at Saturday night’s opening ceremonies. But it was a tough week emotionally for him.
“It was my brother’s birthday five days ago and I’ve been trying to focus on just this but that’s been taking quite the toll on me and this morning before my semifinals match, I just had to let a few tears out because, oh I just wish I could hug my brother but all I have is memories of him now. But that didn’t stop me from making history and being part of the Games and not only being a part of the Games but winning the Games, too.”
Avalak plans to move down to Edmonton next month, where he has spent time training, to upgrade his classes in preparation for university. He wants to take Native Studies at the University of Alberta and continue wrestling.
“The plan is U of A,” he said. “I know a lot of great people there. A lot of great teammates. A great coach as you can see over there and they’re the reason -- coach, Edmonton Wrestling Club and UofA Wrestling Club -- they’re the reason where I’m at today.”