Reflection: Avalak’s golden moment made history at Summer Games
Nunatsiaq News editor Gord Howard looks back on his week covering Team Nunavut at Canada Summer Games
This article is one in a series in which Nunatsiaq News journalists reflect on a story from 2022 that they loved to tell.
My week at the Canada Summer Games had a Hollywood ending — the crowd on its feet cheering, the winner who beat the odds tearfully hugging his coach, photographers’ flashes going off.
Sure, time can smooth the rough edges and cast our memories in a softer light, but I swear there was just a bit of magic happening in those early days of August in Ontario’s Niagara region.
Compared to the other teams, Nunavut’s athletes were small in number, just 31 in total, and often small in size. And without the advantages that competitors from the larger provinces had, they were easy to cheer for.
Team Nunavut was the underdog, but it wouldn’t roll over.
And sometimes the underdog wins. I got to witness wrestler Eekeeluak Avalak take home Nunavut’s first-ever gold medal from the Canada Summer Games, in the 52-kg division.
I still get a chill when I rewatch the video of his championship match. Watch it for yourself, see if it doesn’t get to you, too.
Listen for the chant of “Nunavut! Nunavut!” that rises from the crowd between rounds. Watch Eekee’s body language on the mat — he was simply commanding.
And then the emotional embrace with his coach, Chris Crooks, after he won, followed by a victory lap carrying the flag of Nunavut.
I can picture it even now.
But the smaller moments stand out, too.
Like Nunavut fielding a beach volleyball team — who ever heard of a beach volleyball team from the Arctic?
Talk about Hollywood, even the athletes got a laugh when the comparison to Cool Runnings, the movie about the Jamaican bobsled team, came up.
They had no beach or sand court to practise on; they trained in a school gym, their coach lived in Saskatchewan and generally they were shorter than their opponents in a sport where size really does matter.
But they competed hard. They weren’t pushovers for anyone.
And then there was Jusipi Dimitruk, a wrestler from Cambridge Bay, winning his first-ever match.
He was only 14, the youngest wrestler on the team. His grandparents and two sisters had come in for the day and were in the stands. When he won, they were crying, his teammates stood cheering. The crowd was hollering.
Reflecting later on what wrestling has done for him, Dimitruk said, “I was 11 years old, I was 80 pounds. I hung around with the wrong crowd, I was smoking, drinking.
“If not for wrestling — I’m serious, I wouldn’t have been down south (for training), I wouldn’t have met these great people. Probably would have been smoking at a friend’s house or drunk on the street. It was pretty rough.”
How could you not be impressed? His story, and those of the other Nunavut athletes I talked with, was proof of the power of sport to change people’s lives for the better.
But everything that week led to Avalak, 18, going for the gold medal in wrestling.
It’s become a cliché to say an athlete was focused, or in “the zone.” But that’s what he was in the moments before his match. His eyes were sharp.
As the match went on, Avalak seemed to gain energy even as his opponent was tiring. He won 10-1. It was never close.
Later with a crowd of reporters and microphones around him, he shouted: “Nunavut! Stand up! This is not only my moment, this is all of our moment!”
Then the Nunavut athletes stood for a team photo, grouped around Avalak and his gold medal.
It was a Hollywood moment. Unforgettable.
Re-writing it since this didn’t make the Nunatsiaq top 5 stories of 2022 are we? Ask any other Canadian and this would be Nunavut’s top story of 2022! Way to go Eekee!