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LE Newsletter - March 11, 2004

  Interview With Daniel Igali, Olympic Champion

I first met Daniel Igali at the offices of Joel Gordon (pictured right) of V Formation Productions, director and co-producer of his most current project, Wresting with Destiny, which aired this past Tuesday on CBC.  Wrestling with Destiny profiles Canadian Olympic champion Daniel Igali.  I went to the private screening of this documentary last week - it was a very moving and insightful look into the life of an intriguing individual, a man who thrives on achieving the impossible.  Even more exciting, on the night of the screening (Saturday, March 6), it was announced that Daniel has now qualified for the2004 Olympics.  Earlier that day, Daniel had wrestled and won against Zoltan Hunyady of Fergus, Ont., in a best-of-three Saturday to earn a spot on the Olympic team in the 74-kilogram class.  (See related story under SPORTS NEWS.)  See pictures from this special weekend in my PHOTO GALLERY

Joel Gordon, who battled Malaria and was near death during the filming of this documentary is currently launching a new website with clips from the documentary in case you missed it!  Check it out HERE

We conducted the interview en route to the airport for Daniel’s departure back to Vancouver
on Sunday, March 7, 2004

What do you hope people will take away with them after seeing Wresting with Destiny?

I hope they see the struggle that people face when they come to a foreign land.  I hope they also see the link between Canada and the third world.  I also hope that they see that I am not just a wrestler but that I’m a human being too. 

When I initially came here in 1994, I wanted to stay here.  It was because the Canadian wrestlers were my idols.  I wanted to wrestle like them.  In 1998, the first year that I qualified to be on the Canadian national team, I found out that no Canadian wrestler had won the World Championships.  That was the biggest thing I had to deal with because I had this complex
I started thinking that if they haven’t won it, and I wanted to be like them, then how much less were my chances to do it?  That is something I struggled with for the longest time.  I spoke with therapists and coaches – we worked on this for ages because I couldn’t get out of it.  I don’t even know what broke it.  I remember one day my coach told me “Daniel, there’s a first time for everything - so you could be the first one to do it.  You know how you wanted to be like the Canadians?  Now you’re like them and you’re going to be better and everybody else will want to be like you – and be better.”  And now that’s what happened.  Nine years ago when I came here, I wanted to be like them but when I found out that they hadn’t won a World Championship, I was distraught.  Even when the Olympics came around, it wasn’t as big a barrier because I knew I was a World Champion then.  So, I had an opportunity to win the Olympics.  But the World Championship – going in and knowing that nobody had done it before was devastating for me. 

What was the more meaningful win for you?

It was the World Championships.  My biggest victory to date has been the [2000] World Championships.  It
was even more satisfying for me because the American I beat in the finals was someone I had lost to three straight times within a year!  And I beat him at the World Championships and after that I beat him at the Olympics – very satisfying.  His name was Lincoln McIlravy.  I remember wrestling him three times and being exhausted to the point where it was difficult to walk after all the matches.  When I beat him, he was more tired than I was and that for me was more satisfying than even the victory because I knew I had overcome him – both physically and mentally.  That was satisfying beyond belief. 

What was the most difficult thing about having someone following you around to do a documentary on your life thus far?

I think the most difficult thing initially was not knowing where it was headed – not knowing when it would be aired.  It was something that I knew that Joel [Gordon] was taking on because he thought it was worthwhile.  I didn’t know what would happen.  But on the personal level it was more the fact that initially the cameras were there and I didn’t not how to react – if you should “act” for the cameras or not.  That went away after awhile and you could be just natural and not worry about the cameras.  Initially though, it was about ‘how should I portray myself’, ‘should I just be me or should I be an actor?’ 

Did you act?

No, not necessarily.  There were some parts that we had to recreate things but for the most part, it was just me being me. 

Now this is a project that has taken approximately four years and a lot happened in your life.  There were things that happened during that period of time that were necessary for people to get the complete essence of your life.  So, we saw a few things - the struggle to come to this country, to win a Gold medal and even losing a family member.  It’s hitting us now in the right time. 
What was the most enjoyable thing for you about having completed this documentary?

For me, the documentary unveiled so many feelings that I had bottled inside.  Growing up in Nigeria, as a man, you are always told to be strong and not talk about things.  I would get emotional talking about some of the issues.  Like my dad’s death was a big blow.  Maureen’s [Matheny] death and the recurring dreams and things that happened with Maureen were very emotional for me but it brought it out and I became a freer person because we constantly dealt with them.

Do you think that you’re going to try to “drop the veil” a little more in your life now?

Yeah, but you have to have the avenue to do that.  When this
[documentary] came out, I didn’t even know it was going to head in that direction but questions kept being asked.  The, you start responding to them and it came out.  Afterwards you felt that there was this huge burden taken off your shoulders. 

Do you think that it was because someone was asking the questions?

Somebody was asking the questions but if a reporter from Paris called me up and spoke to me about those things, I wouldn’t be as open but once I got to trust Joel and he became a good friend, I could just talk to him.  So, it was very therapeutic for me.  But I think that trust element came along because it was over a period of time and I don’t think I would have done that with someone I just met.  It was ultimately very good for me on the therapeutic level. 

It might be a different documentary if this was completed in one year, without the benefit to you personally.

It could very well have been. 

If you had to recommend to the powers that be some suggestions in raising the profile as well as the funding for amateur sport in Canada, what would it be?

This has been an age-old question and an ongoing discussion.  There are different streams of thought in this regard.  Amateur athletics [in Canada] do not get the kind of attention they get in Europe or America because in Canada, we’re quite a bit nonchalant and we’re very engrossed with professional sports, especially hockey.  I think that the profile of athletes is not in the forefront because companies do not see any benefit in sponsoring an amateur athlete when they can sponsor a basketball player and have him on television every day.  Both of them kind of go hand in hand.  Now, it’s not just the government, it’s the corporations, the media – they all have to work in tandem to get it done.  And it does not help that the highest performers in the system like me, get $1,100 a month.  And so it’s a very sad commentary. 

One of the questions we always get asked when we talk to kids at schools is ‘how do you survive?’  We’re now saying to kids that they should get involved in sports and these kids are asking us how do you survive in sports.  We’re saying ‘well, it’s not about the survival, it’s about the sport’.  I mean, it doesn’t make any sense to tell them that.  So, there’s a long-winded answer but it requires everybody - the government, corporations and media to make it work.  And until we have that mesh, it’s going to be very difficult. 

Even when you break through in sports like wrestling, you may have one person or corporation that says we’re going to try to take care of your training and living expenses but you’ve got to have a mortgage, you’ve got to have a life.  Nothing else is going to guarantee it for you.  You’ve got to look at your life after sports by working or doing other things.  You can’t have any meaningful investments through what we do.  So, it’s a difficult route we all tread on. 

Where could people write to support amateur sport? How could people reach you if they wanted to support you financially?

My site - www.igali.com.

What do you do when you're not training, wrestling in matches, speaking or doing personal appearances?  Do you have any hobbies that are just for you?

What is happening now is that my spare time is for school.  I’m doing my masters at SFU so I use my spare time to catch up on school.  If I’m not doing that, I do play video games.  I have a soccer game that I play.  I play in the English league, the Italian league, the French league.  Those are the kind of things that keep me going.  Sometimes I go out with my friends and we go bowling.  On Sunday evenings also, I play indoor soccer.  I’m a big sports fan.  My favourite is watching soccer.  Arsenals are my favourite team in the English premier league.  So, I follow all their games.  I try to make sure that I catch all their games on TV. 

What would be your ultimate dream be if money or any obstacles were no consideration?

That’s a tough question.  I definitely want to get involved with kids at a level different than what I am now.  I know the value of sports and I want to use sports to do that and I know what sports has done for me in my life.  Everything I’ve ever done in my life has been through sports – friends, everything.  So, I want to use that as a vehicle to reach out to kids a bit more.  Other than that, if I were to choose what I would want to be, I would want to be comfortable enough to be somewhere where I won’t have
a TV or any of these modern distractions and live on a farm or something with my kids and my wife.  Just something simple – somewhere that I won’t have any worries at all.  Any of the modern worries. 

That’s one of the things that I’m doing in Nigeria –
included with the school project is a gym that is dedicated to where kids can come and play.  I went to university for four years on a scholarship given to me by Paul Nemeth, one of my biggest supporters, and he gave me $50,000 for my school project.  He was very interested in the gym and in kids being able to go and play in that gym.  So, I think with this school project, that is going to happen – kids will have the opportunity to be able to further their goals and lose themselves by playing in a safe environment.  I’ll make sure they have a basketball court, an indoor soccer field and a wrestling mat.  That is coming to fruition in a way but if I’m going to live in Canada, I’m going to try to recreate something like that here too.

If you reflect on your life in general – not just your career -but your life, what do you think is the biggest thing that sports has taught you and/or given to you.

If it hadn’t have been for sports, I wouldn’t be in Canada.  I think that sports opened me to a new world here in Canada and gave me a new lease on life.  Coming to Canada is something that God had pre-ordained for me but it was through the sports vehicle that I got here.  So, that is one thing that I will remain ever grateful for - that I was given the opportunity to come to such a land.  And to be able to contribute to a society that I believe in my heart is the greatest place to live on earth. 

Congratulations - You’ve now qualified for the 2004 Olympics.  What’s next for you?

Thank you!  I will still be doing my schoolwork.  It keeps me grounded.  I remember before the Olympics – the summer of the Olympics -
I had two courses in school and I know how that helped me.  I wasn’t totally frustrated with training – I still had something to go back and do.  I’m one of those people that who have to stay busy all the time.  So, I will still have school.  I’m planning on going to Nigeria in about six weeks for about one week just to go and see my people back home.  It’s always very refreshing and invigorating to go home and come back.  I’ll do that and then training will receive the priority in my life until the 2004 Olympics. 

You were mentioning in the documentary that you’re thinking about retiring and what you want to do at that point.  You were talking about a committee that you wanted to be on – tell me a little bit more about that.

The IOC (International Olympic Committee) is the governing board for sports internationally.  They have about 120 members worldwide and on that board, they have eight athletes that represent the interests of athletes.  They elect four every four years so right now, the last four people elected, their term has expired and they’re going to re-elect four more people.  So, every country puts in candidates – we had Charmaine Crooks representing Canada at the IOC board.  Her time is now up so we had a mini-election within Canada to elect a representative to the IOC Athletes Commission and I was the person that was elected.  In 2004 at the Olympics, all the athletes would have to vote for four more people to go join the four others on the board.  If I’m lucky enough to be voted as such, I would be an IOC member, which would really be great because then you can really fight for the interests of athletes for their welfare, education, financially, for training grants – all those things that athletes need.  Especially athletes from the third world countries, they need it more.  Because I come from Nigeria, a third world country, and I live now in Canada; I have an understanding of both worlds.  I think I would be a great candidate to represent Canada at the Athletes Commission at the IOC. 

I think that you are a perfect example of what can be done by someone when they’re embraced by Canada.  We are very proud of you and consider you a transplanted Canadian.  So, congratulations on 2004!

Thank you very much.