Olympic champion Igali visits U of C

By Kris Kotarski

It’s funny; at first glance, Daniel Igali doesn’t look very intimidating at all. Until one gets a closer look, his five-foot-eight frame doesn’t seem very imposing, certainly not the image most athletes of his calibre portray. Even his ears don’t surrender the fact that the man is a wrestler.

At a closer distance, however, Igali’s impressive physique starts to shine through. His broad shoulders, although hidden by a baggy sweatshirt, hint there is more to him than meets the eye. His sculpted legs, so explosive on the mat, are hidden under his Simon Fraser University joggers. Igali doesn’t exude elusive speed or amazing strength. The first and most noticeable feature is his warm smile. He seems constantly happy, showing off his friendly grin to anyone who will look. And Igali, 2000 Olympic Champion in Freestyle Wrestling, has plenty of reasons to smile.

His Cinderella story began in Nigeria in 1974. Daniel Igali was the seventh of 21 children in his family, and learned to fight for himself early. His amazing road to Olympic glory began with wrestling neighbourhood boys in his hometown of Port Harcourt.

"It’s been a long journey; I started really young," said Igali. "When I was like six I started wrestling around with kids and then I knew I had a gift. But I got really serious into it when I was 16, that was when I got into the style of wrestling."

Igali made the Nigerian national team and qualified for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, but disaster struck at the last minute.

"In 1992 in Nigeria, I did make the team but I was dropped, ’cause there was no money. That so far has been my biggest disappointment… I was 18, and probably I wouldn’t have done anything at the Olympics but it would have been great to go."

A couple of years later, Igali came to Canada to wrestle in the 1994 Commonwealth Games and he decided to stay. He was granted refugee status and has lived in his adopted homeland ever since. He started wrestling for the Burnaby Mountain Wrestling Club at SFU, under the tutelage of coaches Dave McKay and Mike Johns.

"They’ve groomed me up into the wrestler I have been," said Igali of his mentors.

Igali amassed a 119-0 record in National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics competitions for SFU, all while working on a criminology degree. Igali was granted citizenship in 1998 and became Canada’s first wrestling world champion in 1999. For his efforts he was named top male Canadian athlete for 1999 over sprinter Bruny Surin. He also became one of our nation’s best hopes for Olympic gold in Sydney.

Igali didn’t disappoint, and after a tough road to the final which included a stunning win over American Lincoln McIlravy in the semis, he met Russian Arsen Gitinov in the finals. Igali won 7-4 to claim the third and last Canadian gold at the games. The gold medalist celebrated by placing a Canadian flag at the centre of the mat, jogging around it twice, and kissing it to signify coming full circle since his decision to stay in Canada in 1994.

"It’s cool to go to the Olympics, and the gold medal was just a big bonus for me," reflected Igali. "I’m just thankful to God I was able to get that."

One of Igali’s most cherished memories was the opening ceremony.

"Besides the podium performance [it was] my greatest memory there," he said. "I’d waited so long to go to the Olympics since I was so young, when I finally went to the Olympics and started meeting all the athletes from other countries, fellow Olympians, I was like ‘Wow, I’ve achieved my greatest goal.’ "

"It’s been great feedback from everybody, very positive. I met all kinds of people. Women and men who were 70 who said they’d never watched wrestling before that just got into it," Igali said with a smile on his face.

Igali acted out the typical reaction he’s seen from his fans in Canada.

"’Oh, I watched all your matches!’" he exclaimed. "People stayed up till three in the morning to watch my matches so I’m like ‘Oh, man, this is so great.’"

Igali hopes his victory will give wrestling some much-needed exposure in Canada.

"I think the gold medal has brought a lot of recognition to the sport and we just hope that we’ll get more kids involved and get a lot more notoriety to the sport."

As for his plans for the future, Igali seems happy to get a break.

"I’m just taking it easy. I’m going low key right now, just training a couple of times a week. I’m waiting until February to go to my first tournament in Cuba."

In the meantime, Igali will take time off to visit Nigeria and enjoy his medal with his family.

"[The trip will be a] pleasure, but I will have a match. I do enjoy the traditional wrestling system there, so I’ll have one match… and that’ll be a lot of fun."

Igali provided Canadians with one of the most cherished moments at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Much like triathlete Simon Whitfield, he cried on the podium and held his head high as the national anthem played in far away Australia. Igali let all of Canada share in his amazing victory, and he asks for nothing in return. He is the complete package: skill, speed, determination, and a heart the size of his new homeland. But while most fans may not remember his matches, his smile will leave a lasting impression on anyone who got the chance to see it.