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'Wrestling saved my life': Nunavut athlete wants to spread hope to northern youth

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Wrestler Eekeeluak Avalak, who won Nunavut's first ever medal with a gold in the 52-kilogram category, is shown in a handout photo after his win at the Canada Summer Games. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Canada Games-James Ruddy **MANDATORY CREDIT** 

YELLOWKNIFE — Eekeeluak Avalak says his historic win at the 2022 Canada Summer Games isn't just his, it belongs to all of Nunavut.

"Without anyone on my side, this wouldn't have been possible," says the 18-year-old wrestler, who grew up in Cambridge Bay, also known as Ikaluktutiak in Inuinnaqtun.

Avalak, known to his friends as Eekie, made history Thursday when he won Nunavut's first gold medal in the Games.

He says that when he was young he was hanging out with the wrong crowd and often got into trouble. Then he found wrestling at the age of 12 and started down a different path. 

"Wrestling didn't just change my life, it saved me," he says. "Wrestling was able to help me get all that anger out. … that was my outlet to escape all the trauma and stuff that I've gone through." 

Avalak has since gone on to compete nationally and collect several medals. 

He was the flag-bearer for Nunavut at the opening ceremony for this month's Canada Summer Games in Ontario's Niagara Region. It was his first time competing at the country's largest amateur multi-sport event. 

He is the second Nunavut athlete to bring home a medal since the territory began competing in the Games in 2001, and the first to do so in the summer portion of the competition. In 2007, Nunavut won a bronze medal in judo at the Winter Games in Whitehorse.

Avalak, who was emotional after his final match Thursday, dedicated his win to his brother Joanasie, who died by suicide in 2015. He says his brother, who he described as his role model, would have turned 27 just a few days before the competition. 

"He always had a smile on his face no matter what," he says. "He meant so much to me."

Avalak says he wants his story to show other youth in Nunavut that there is hope for change. 

"I want to inspire people." he says. "This is the first step by putting Nunavut on the map with wrestling and it feels great." 

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

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

He says 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."

Avalak says he plans to move Edmonton to continue to pursue wrestling, since he has limited training partners in his home territory. 

He says he also wants to upgrade his schooling to be able to apply to an Indigenous studies program in university. 

"This is just the beginning," he says. "Wrestling saved my life, so wrestling will be with me until the day I'm gone."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 14, 2022. 

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Emily Blake, The Canadian Press