Eekeeluak Avalak was guaranteed to make history even before he stepped onto the mat on Thursday.
The 18-year-old wrestler from Cambridge Bay won not only Nunavut’s first ever medal at the Canada Summer Games, but captured gold.
In the moments after the victory, he thought of his late brother Joanasie, who would have turned 27 a few days ago.
“Happy belated birthday to a special person up in heaven,” Avalak said, pointing a finger skyward. “This is for you. And I know you’re watching over me and I love you, brother. I love you.”
“I have a lot of emotions,” he said, pausing to fight off tears. “It feels great, history has been made.”
Avalak went unbeaten at the Games, defeating Alberta’s Fred Calingay 10-1 on points in the 52-kilogram category in Thursday’s gold-medal final.
Avalak, whose brother died by suicide in 2015, said the Games have been an emotional roller-coaster.
“My brother’s birthday was five days ago, and I’ve been trying to focus on just [wrestling], but that’s taken quite a toll on me,” Avalak said. “Before the semifinals match [earlier Thursday], I just had to let a few tears out because I just wish I could hug my brother ... all I have is memories of him now.
“But that didn’t stop me from being a part of the Games, and not only just being a part of them, but winning the Games too.”
Nunavut first sent a team to the Canada Summer Games in 2001 in London, Ont. The team’s only previous medal was a bronze in judo at the 2007 Canada Winter Games in Whitehorse.
Avalak, who is the Canadian U19 freestyle bronze medalist in the 55-kg weight class, carried Nunavut’s flag into the Games opening ceremony on Saturday at the Meridian Centre in St. Catharines, Ont.
Avalak, who was Nunavut’s male athlete of the year in 2020, took up the sport at 12. He credits wrestling with changing his life and keeping him out of trouble.
“I couldn’t have done it without everyone around me, my teammates, my father figure right here, my coach [Chris Crooks]. It’s just beautiful to be a part of it,” he said. “I’m just happy.”
Avalak said he’s moving to Edmonton in the fall and plans to enroll in Native studies at the University of Alberta.
“I want to learn more about not just my culture, but other Indigenous cultures,” he said.
Asked how big the gold medal is to people of Nunavut, he said: “Oh, this is so big, first gold medalist in Nunavut history and that’s just so great to be a part of.”
Prince Edward Island earned its first two medals of the Games, as Vanessa Keefe won gold in the women’s 69-kg wrestling event, while RJ Hetherington picked up bronze in the men’s 65-kg wrestling competition.
In swimming action, Julie Brousseau matched the record for most medals won at a single Canada Games with her 11th on Thursday.
Brousseau won gold in the 200-metre individual medley with a Games-record time of two minutes 14.93 seconds. She also picked up bronze as a part of Ontario’s mixed 4x100 freestyle relay team.
The record for medals was set by Ontario swimmer Hanna Henderson at the 2017 Games.
Selkirk, Man., native Teagen Purvis claimed her fourth gold medal of the Games, winning the women’s 50-metre freestyle Special Olympics swimming event.
The medal is Purvis’ fifth of the event and among three swimming medals won by Manitoba Thursday.
Ontario earned 31 medals on the day, including 14 gold medals to maintain its lead in the medal standings with 77 total medals and 34 golds.
British Columbia sits in second with 60 medals. The province’s 17 golds are good for third. Alberta is second in golds with 22, and third in overall medals with 57.
Quebec (45 overall, 12 golds), and Manitoba (20 overall, seven golds) sit in fourth and fifth place in the medal standings, respectively.
Yukon and the Northwest Territories are still in search of their first medals of the competition.