‘Happy to be home,’ says Nunavut wrestler who arrives to a celebration
The Cambridge Bay airport erupted in cheers, and tears, Monday as Eekeeluak Avalak entered, bearing the territory’s first ever medal — Gold — from the Canada Summer Games.
“Happy to be home,” Avalak told CBC News shortly after his plane landed in the western Nunavut community.
The 18-year-old wrestler, known affectionately as Eekee in the community of about 2,000, defeated Alberta’s Fred Calingay on Thursday. Avalak became only the second athlete from Nunavut to win a medal at the Canada Games, and the first to secure Gold.
The first medal was won by Eugene Dedrick, who earned a bronze in judo at the Canada Winter Games in Whitehorse in 2007.
“It’s fantastic,” said Cambridge Bay’s chief administrative officer, Jim MacEachern, earlier Monday of Avalak’s win. “He should be proud and the whole community is proud.”
Elders, family and friends, members of the RCMP, Canadian Rangers and some soldiers in town for Operation Nanook-Nunakput all planned to be at the airport when Avalak and his teammates and coach, Chris Crooks, arrived around noon, MacEachern said.
Outside, horns honked and people cheered as vehicles decked in Nunavut flags plowed through the hamlet in celebration.
A celebration was planned at the Luke Novoligak community hall with time for autographs and photos, said MacEachern.
Wendy Kootoo-Wood has called her son a “true warrior.”
He dedicated his win to his late brother Joanasie, who would have recently turned 27. He died by suicide in 2015.
Chris Crooks, who has been coaching wrestling for more than 40 years, told the Canadian Press he first met Avalak when he was teaching Grade 6.
“Amazing athletic ability is the first thing I noticed,” Crooks said. “As time would go on, dedication, discipline and a drive to accomplish something.”
Crooks said 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.”
In preparation for the festivities, volunteers decorated the community hall with signs saying, “Congrats Eekee, making Nunavut proud.” A Nunavut flag will be available for people to sign greetings to Avalak.
In the evening, a big community celebration is planned, with a feast, drum dancing, square dancing and fireworks.
The welcome-back celebrations are taking place under mainly sunny skies, with a temperature of about 16 C — much better than last week when the community was battered by high winds.