NAIT student strikes gold at North American Indigenous Games

Paddling tips from her grandparents made Davina McLeod a world-class canoeist

Davina McLeod never imagined where a canoe might take her.

Now 19, she first got into one when she was 8 or 9 years old. Her grandpa and “mama” would take her out onto the Peel River and lakes surrounding her hometown of Aklavik, NWT’s westernmost community, about 70 kilometres inland from the Arctic Ocean. These weren’t leisurely excursions. Her grandparents taught her how to race.

“My entire family paddles,” says the JR Shaw School of Business student and Ooks women’s hockey forward. “It’s part of our tradition, which I think is really cool. I can see where I get my competitiveness from.”

Combined with her skills on the water, that competitiveness led her to the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) in Toronto, where 5,000 Indigenous athletes from across the continent competed in 14 sports in July. Once there with the NWT team, McLeod paddled well above her weight, bringing home 4 medals in solo and mixed events.

Here, she tells us about making the journey from calmer waters in NWT to waiting anxiously at the starting lines in one of Canada’s biggest sporting events of 2017.

Davina McLeod's medals from the 2017 North American Indigenous Games in Toronto, Ontario, CanadaI’ve never really paddled anywhere other than here. We were practicing and we felt that we were possibly good enough to get bronze and maybe medal in a few races. We didn’t expect to go there and do as well as we did.

"We got the first gold for NWT."

I competed in 6 races. The first time I medalled was with my friend Kaidan McDonald. We got the first gold for NWT – in the 3,000-metre sprint race. I also got gold in the 1,000m sprint race solo, and silver in both the 3,000m and 1,000m sprint doubles. There were teams that brought a lot of paddlers, which was stressful for us. We had 9 people as opposed to their 40.

One thing I noticed is the different technique from each province and territory. Their paddles were different, their stroke was different. Mine is short, fast and consistent. Other paddlers would grab as much water as they can and pull it right behind their bodies, stop, and go again to get momentum.

I get my technique from my grandpa. People say we look exactly the same in the water. We go out every summer – him and my mama are always giving me tips.

The experience [at NAIG] was amazing. The opening ceremonies were really cool. There was one speech that I thought was really meaningful. An Indigenous leader said that we should be really proud of where we’re from. Canada 150 is celebrating colonialism, but at the same time it’s celebrating the fact that our people are still here, we’re still competing, we’re still in touch with our culture, which I think is really important.

I try to stay informed about that sort of stuff. We live in a great country and we’re more privileged than most people in the world. But at the same time, how my people are still being treated is really unfortunate.

The games taught me to not limit myself and to not be worried about how I’m going to perform. It’s hard for the nerves not to get to you when you’re at the start line, but once you get going you just get into it and you know what you can do.

"Once you get going you just get into it and you know what you can do."

And it’s not just about how it impacted me but how it impacted people around me. Aklavik is a small community – 500 or 600 people. Everyone knows everyone. I’ve had people come up to me and say that their daughters look up to me now. I got a comment yesterday: someone’s daughter looked at a photo of me and said, “I didn’t know you could wear makeup and play sports.” I thought that was so cool. That’s the most important part almost – not even competing at these games but what me competing at these games means to other people.

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