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DEGREES OF SUCCESS: Cambridge Bay wrestling program builds resilience, offers supports

Wrestling conjures images of fierce grappling on the mats, but it’s an avenue to help shape more well-rounded human beings, said Chris Crooks, coach of the highly successful wrestling program in Cambridge Bay.
Coach Chris Crooks provides guidance to Nunavut wrestler Kristen McCallum during the 2023 Arctic Winter Games. Photo courtesy of Paula Cziranka

Wrestling conjures images of fierce grappling on the mats, but it’s an avenue to help shape more well-rounded human beings, said Chris Crooks, coach of the highly successful wrestling program in Cambridge Bay.

“So much more of what we do is mental — everything from financing to family planning, to education, to mental health to dealing with trauma — so that creates success; wrestling is a medium,” said Crooks, who introduced the sport to the community in 2015.

A retired teacher with experience as a wrestling, cross-country, track and rugby coach, he accepted a job at Kullik Ilihakvik on a two-year contract, which has now extended into an eighth year.

He said the wrestling program aims to build resilience in participants and to instill the “ability to talk about problems and realize that you do have some choices, as difficult as they may be.”

It also provides them with the opportunity to travel for training and competition, to see different things and get a better understanding of the world, he said. In addition to gruelling training and weight cutting during stays in the south, the young athletes engage in recreational activities such a horseback riding, go to museums and science centres and do some public speaking.

Crooks said he was thoroughly impressed by listening to Nunavut wrestlers take the stage as panellists at a high school in Hamilton, Ont. They discussed life in Nunavut, from the unique aspects of geography and culture to the solemn topics of crime, domestic violence and suicide.

“Some kids who I’d never heard speak were speaking amazingly well, and there were tears in the audience. That ability to be able to talk in a large group without shame about what your life is like is huge,” said Crooks, who added that the wrestling program has lost some young athletes to alcohol poisoning and suicide.

Building from scratch

When he launched the sporting activity, there was nary a wrestling mat in the community. Consequently, the initial training sessions consisted of a lot of games, Crooks recalls.

“I just sort of opened it up to everyone,” he said of the early days, adding that dozens of youth ages six to 16 showed up.

Although numerous grapplers showed promise, he spotted his star protege, Eekeeluak Avalak, on the playground. Avalak was 11 years old at the time, but Crooks said he could tell Avalak was a “phenomenal athlete.”

“I knew he had the physical capabilities,” he remembers. “When I took him to Iqaluit (for territorials), he won pretty handily and I realized at that point that he also had the mental abilities to become an outstanding wrestler.”

Avalak went on to earn the silver medal among competitors under age 17 in the 55 kg weight class at the Canadian Wrestling Championships in 2019. After winning Nunavut’s first gold medal ever at the Canada Summer Games last August, Avalak gave credit to his teammates and “my father figure right here, my coach,” referring to Crooks.

Cambridge Bay’s Kristen McCallum also has a lot of positive things to say about the sport and the opportunities it has afforded her.

“The wrestling program means so much to me, not only on the mat but in my personal life as well,” she said. “We’re all comfortable with each other. I created a special bond with everyone and they will forever be family. Wrestling has helped me learn so much about myself: I learned to be patient, to have more self-control, to be open-minded, to learn and practice new things.

“It opened my mind to know that I’m capable to do anything I set my mind to. I recently lost a best friend to suicide. Wrestling became a safe place for me, it allowed me to take my frustration, hurt and sadness out in a healthy way, my coaches and teammates still support me,” said McCallum.

And the sport has continued to grow. After-school wrestling sessions have spawned for students in Grades 1 to 3 and Grades 4 to 6. Fridays are designated for females only.

Territorial duties

Outside of building the Cambridge Bay program, Crooks stepped up to take over Wrestling Nunavut, the territorial board overseeing the sport, in 2018-19 with help from his wife and son. The previous board members had resigned and Wrestling Nunavut faced collapse without new blood.

Crooks also mentors adults in several other Nunavut communities who serve as wrestling coaches. They use videos that Crooks supplies to get a better understanding of the technical aspects of the sport.

He’s planning to spend the next year trying to ensure that the Cambridge Bay wrestling program and Wrestling Nunavut can remain sustainable after he moves back to the south for the long term.

Avalak attests to how Crooks’ tutelage has left an indelible mark.

“Chris has made a huge impact on me, not only in wrestling but in my personal life as well,” said the 19-year-old. “As a child, I was easily triggered, and I would lash out verbally and physically. Since he introduced me to wrestling, I was able to channel those tantrums through wrestling, and it helped me ease my temper. Because of Chris, I was able to travel to almost every province and territory to compete and train in the sport of wrestling. He also helped me get into a high school to upgrade some classes to get into university. He continues to play a huge role in my life, and I wouldn’t be half the person I am today.”

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About the Author: Derek Neary

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