How a wrestling program took off in Ulukhaktok

Team NT wrestler Ben Inuktalik, left, with team-mate Hunter Kitekudlak
Team NT wrestler Ben Inuktalik, left, with team-mate Hunter Kitekudlak. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

At this year’s Arctic Winter Games, the NWT had two wrestlers on its team. Both of them came from Ulukhaktok.

Ben Inuktalik and Hunter Kitekudlak, both 13, were coached by fellow Ulukhaktok resident and Arctic Winter Games alumnus Jacob Klengenberg – and by school counsellor Monique Smith.

Smith was a university wrestler and had a good friend, Leah Ferguson, compete for Canada at the London 2012 Olympics.

Ferguson has since worked to develop Indigenous coaches and wrestlers in northern Manitoba. When Smith was contracted to work in Ulukhaktok, Gamètì and Wekweètì, she borrowed from Ferguson’s playbook and persuaded territorial sports agency Sport North to help find money for wrestling mats in each of the three communities.



“I’m up there anyway, why not volunteer wrestling?” Smith said she thought at the time.

“Therapeutically, when you create connections with kids – even outside the office – you have such a cool opportunity to meet the kids on their level.

“We do a lot of the therapeutic skills: we do mindfulness grounding, we do deep breathing. The things I’m trying to teach in the office, I can teach them on the wrestling mat.”

Klengenberg competed at the 2016 and 2018 Arctic Winter Games in snowshoe biathlon, a sport he took up following the efforts of an iconic NWT coach: the late Pat Bobinski.



Bobinski, who passed away in 2017, famously and tirelessly established biathlon as a sport in a wide range of northern communities, earning renown for the dedication with which he supported both his sport and young athletes.

Klengenberg said he sees some of that in Smith’s approach to wrestling.

“As somebody who has experienced somebody coming into the community and pretty-well dropping their impact, so to say, it’s sparking interest in the kids and the kids’ lives,” he said.

“They’re getting to know themselves as people, and I really think that’s awesome.

“Monique Smith has been amazing for not only the mental health side of things for our community, but also physical health and stuff like that.”

Monique Smith with Jacob Klengenberg
Monique Smith with Jacob Klengenberg. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

At the Arctic Winter Games in Fort McMurray, Inuktalik and Kitekudlak were cheered on and offered support by other teams at their first large wrestling event of any kind.

Inuktalik told Cabin Radio he had only been wrestling for about three months before making the trip. He admitted being “a little bit scared” of the level of competition, but added it was “cool how big it is” in the giant sports centre that hosted this year’s wrestling events.

“I just had fun wrestling. It’s so much fun,” added Kitekudlak.



“The biggest thing is character,” said Smith. “It’s about integrity, and we’ve just watched these kids grow and their character, so to me, that’s a success.”

Smith wants the program to expand, but first it has to survive the personnel churn that is a common threat to sports in smaller northern communities.

Often, no sooner has a program taken hold than the person running it ends up elsewhere and momentum ebbs away.

In this case, Smith is no longer contracted to work in Ulukhaktok and Klengenberg is soon joining the RCMP, leaving the new team’s future uncertain.

“My whole mentality is: let’s find people at the local level who we can train to be coaches, because there’s only one of me and at the end of the day, we want to create a sustainable program,” said Smith.

The North American Indigenous Games, being held in Halifax this summer, are the next milestone. Smith is hoping to find a way to train up some female wrestlers for selection to Team NT alongside the boys, and “hopefully build up some coaches as well in the meantime.”

To anyone who wants to become a wrestling coach, she said: “Let’s do it, let’s get it started.”