Nunavut wrestler with big dreams wins gold at NAIG | CBC News

Eekeeluak Avalak is golden again.

The 19-year-old from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, won his second gold medal in wrestling for the territory — and his first at the North American Indigenous Games in Halifax — on Wednesday.

“History’s been made. Nunavut, stand up. This is all of our moment, we did it,” he told CBC through tears after the match, which was livestreamed on the CBC Nunavut Facebook page

Avalak went two rounds against Jerin Coles, his opponent from Manitoba, ultimately winning both. 

After winning, Avalak fell to the mat with his head in his hands before hugging his long-time coach, Chris Crooks. Cheers from other Nunavut athletes erupted across the Dauphinee Centre in Halifax as Avalak’s teammates rushed onto the mat to hug him, one of them passing him a Nunavut flag to drape across himself.

“I’m just very happy,” he said. 

WATCH: Eekeeluak Avalak wins gold at NAIG

Watch the emotional moment this wrestler from Nunavut wins gold at the Indigenous games

Eekeeluak Avalak says this win is for his auntie who passed away last week. The 19-year-old from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, won gold on Wednesday at the 2023 North American Indigenous Games — his second gold medal ever. He spoke to the CBC’s Emma Tranter.

Avalak said he thought of his aunt during his match, who passed away last week while he was at a training camp before the games. He said he dedicated the match to her. 

“I just got the news … And I was thinking of her,” he said. 

Avalak wasn’t alone at this tournament. Thirteen other wrestlers from Nunavut were standing behind him, pounding the plexiglass around the wrestling arena as the young athlete scored point after point.

A group of people stand behind the Nunavut flag.
Nunavut’s wrestling team showed up in force at NAIG this week, winning two medals on Wednesday. (Emma Tranter/CBC)

Nunavut’s wrestlers dominated on the mat at the games, going up against other Indigenous athletes from across North America.

They were also the loudest in the room.

Cheers of, “Eekee! Eekee!” and “Nuna-what? Nunavut!” echoed across the arena each time a wrestler from Nunavut took to the mat. 

Bronze for Arviat wrestler

This was Thayer Komakjuak’s first competition, but the 18-year-old from Arviat blew away his opponents, ultimately winning a bronze medal.

“I didn’t expect to make it this far but I did it,” Komakjuak said in Inuktitut after his match.

Chasity St. John, also from Arviat, won fifth place, pinning her opponent in the first round. 

“I’m so happy!” St. John said when she came off the mat.

A girl runs, holding a flag high in the air and grinning.
Chasity St. John does a lap with the Nunavut flag streaming out behind her. (NAIG2023)

For Morgan Kakuktinniq from Rankin Inlet, this competition was a chance to wrestle. The 18-year-old can’t compete against anyone at territorial competitions in Nunavut because there aren’t any athletes in his weight class.

“They said come to a bigger competition and you’ll find somebody,” he said. 

Without anyone his size back home, Kakutinniq watches YouTube videos and sometimes even wrestles two people at once.

“You can’t really work on technique but I do what I can.”

For his first competition, he made it all the way to the end, placing fourth in his bronze medal match.

“It feels awesome. I love watching my teammates wrestle because they’ve got a lot of spirit,” he said. 

“It’s an amazing feeling. It’s what makes it worth it.”

Nunavut wrestling coach Chris Crooks said his team has a “family atmosphere.”

“We’ll cook meals together, go horseback riding. The team, in a way, is bigger than the individual,” he said. 

“There’s nothing that we don’t talk about and discuss. We support each other.”

Several people sit in a stadium behind plexiglass, holding up bright flags.
Fans in the stands cheered and held up Nunavut flags as wrestlers faced off Wednesday against opponents from other jurisdictions. (NAIG2023)

As for his team’s standout performance at the games, Crooks said it’s not about medals.

“I’m not looking to build champions … It’s really about developing character that will carry them much further in life than a gold medal will,” he said. 

As for Avalak, he plans to head home to Cambridge Bay before he starts university at the University of Alberta in the fall. 

“Find your passion, take risks. Go for it. It’s going to be scary, but it will be worth it,” Avalak said.

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