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N.W.T. wrestler in AWG credits pan-northern program for building confidence

Hannah Bekale, 15, is competing in wrestling at the Arctic Winter Games. She says she's proud of herself for overcoming her shyness, meeting the challenge of travelling to a new place and giving her all on the mat. Mentorship has helped her get there.  (Graham Shishkov/CBC - image credit)
Hannah Bekale, 15, is competing in wrestling at the Arctic Winter Games. She says she's proud of herself for overcoming her shyness, meeting the challenge of travelling to a new place and giving her all on the mat. Mentorship has helped her get there. (Graham Shishkov/CBC - image credit)

Because of wrestling, Hannah Bekale says she's learned discipline, confidence and met lots of new people.

Bekale, 15, from Gamètı̀, N.W.T. is competing in the Arctic Winter Games. No matter how she does, she says she's proud of herself for overcoming her shyness, meeting the challenge of travelling to a new place and giving her all on the mat.

"I did what I need to do, I came here for what I need to do and I'm very proud of myself for that," she said.

Bekale is a participant in a pan-northern program using wrestling as a vehicle for mental and physical health.

Monique Smith, a school counsellor in Gamètı̀ and Wekweètì and a former varsity wrestler, is building the program and calling it Team North.

Her goal is to create a mentorship network where athletes feel connected to each other and see themselves represented by more experienced competitors.

Monique Smith, a school counsellor in Gamètı̀ and Wekweètì and a former varsity wrestler, is building the program to pass on lessons she's learned from sport. (Graham Shishkov/CBC)

Loryn Evans-Muswagon has been that mentor for Bekale.

Last year, Bekale attended a wrestling camp in Calgary that Smith was helping facilitate.

Bekale said she felt scared and out of place.

"I felt like I was the only res kid there," she said.

Evans-Muswagon, Cree from northern Manitoba, was also coaching at the camp and Smith suggested she do some training with Bekale.

"Afterwards I asked Hannah, I said 'how was that for you and Loryn?' " Smith said, "and Hannah said something to the effect of, 'good, she looks like me.' "

Evans-Muswagon now lives in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut and is an AWG coach for Nunavut's wrestling team.

As an Indigenous woman in wrestling, she said she wants to be the representation she was missing as a young athlete.

"You don't know that Indigenous people can be in these roles and be in these positions and when you do see it and you can picture yourself in that position … It's a very empowering feeling," Evans-Muswagon said.

"That's kind of the role that I'd like to play when I'm in these spaces, working with other Indigenous youth to let them know that they belong here, that even just showing up is enough."

Hannah Bekale, right, at the Arctic Winter Games in Alaska. (Graham Shishkov/CBC)

With Evans-Muswagon, Ulukhaktok coach Jacob Klengenberg along with other northern coaches, Smith is hoping to create more camps and workshops for wrestlers across the territories. She says she hopes to engage experienced athletes too, like Nunavut's Eekeeluak Avalak who won gold at this summer's North American Indigenous Games.

Smith says she's applied to the Arctic Inspiration Prize to fund the program and up to this point has been finding funds through various one-time grants.

She says money is a real obstacle, especially since she can often only get the grant once the athletes travel. That means that for camps like the one in Calgary last year she had to charge Bekale's trip to her personal credit card.

But Smith says she's determined to grow Team North and help share some of the lessons she's learned through sport.

"One of the big important things is that we need to create opportunities to challenge ourselves. If we don't challenge ourselves, we don't grow," she said.

"The goal is building up mental health resiliency, wrestling just a vehicle."