Northwest Territories judo team aims high at Canada Winter Games

Mario Desforges has several students at his practices, from national team members to youth just starting the sport. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)
It’s rare for a territory to medal at the Canada Winter Games.

Rarer still is when an athlete enters the competition as a bona-fide gold medal favourite. Typically, competitors from the territories are at the Games to gain experience and see how they stack up against the bigger provinces.

Even rarer than that is when a territory produces multiple medallists, in multiple Games, in the same sport, outside of occasional standouts in cross-country and biathlon.

But Yellowknife’s Wilson Elliot is not your typical Northern athlete. And the Northwest Territories’ judo program, with coach Mario Desforges at the helm, has produced anything but your average team.

‘I’m just excited’

The 18-year-old Elliot has had an incredible year. After winning the national judo championships in his age category and weight class in the summer, he travelled with Team Canada to the Pan-American championships and placed 5th.

Elliot is mild-mannered and understated: a glasses-wearing redhead with a disarming demeanour that belies his heavyweight size and accomplishments in a combat sport.

He’s considered teaching as a profession, and has run Lego workshops for Yellowknife’s youth in his spare time. When asked about his best memories from a recent competition, he mentioned a team trip to Saunders Farm in Ontario, and playing paintball in Montreal.

On the mat, though, he’s all business, and doesn’t seem to be letting the pressure of the moment overtake him.

Wilson Elliot, right, trains with his brother Nolan ahead of the 2019 Canada Games. Elliot, a heavyweight, is the reigning national champion and a gold medal favourite. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

“I guess there’s some pressure,” he said, before leaving for the Games in Red Deer, Alberta. “But I don’t know. I’m just excited to show what I’ve got, I guess.”

If he medals, as is expected, Elliot will be the second consecutive N.W.T. heavyweight to do so. In 2015, N’Dilo’s Brent Betsina surprised the Northern sport community by taking home a silver medal, the territory’s first Canada Games medal in any sport in eight years.

But Betsina’s success didn’t come as a surprise to Elliot, or the judo program.

“It’s Mario,” said Elliot. “He’s the best heavyweight coach in Canada.

Mario Desforges watches over an N.W.T. judo practice at the team’s facility in Yellowknife. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)
19 years in the North

Desforges has been at the head of the N.W.T.’s judo program for the past decade. During that time, he’s taken several athletes to the podium at the Canadian championships, including Elliot, his daughter, Gabrielle Desforges, and 15-year-old Jenna Nystrom, Elliot’s teammate at the Canada Winter Games and a bronze medallist at last year’s national championship in her own right.

Desforges sets up a difficult training schedule for his athletes: multiple mat sessions every week coupled with strength training.

“He’ll push you,” said Nystrom, “but he’ll only push you if you want him to. He’ll motivate you the best he can.”

“He’s a great coach,” said Elliot. “He treats us well. Like, really well.”

Jenna Nystrom, 15, won bronze at last year’s national championships. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

There are difficulties that come with coaching athletes in a small city. Travel costs are high, and there is a smaller pool of athletes to choose from.

But Desforges may have figured out the puzzle better than any territorial coach in recent memory: he spent nine years in Iqaluit, Nunavut before moving to Yellowknife, N.W.T. coaching 15-year-old Eugene Dedrick – also a heavyweight – to Nunavut’s first and only Canada Winter Games medal in 2007.

“Sure, we have to train hard to compete with the other provinces and territories,” said Desforges. “That’s good, because all this baggage lifts up their judo.”

According to Nystrom, Desforges has turned the territory’s greatest competitive weakness into a strength. The athletes practice in a small warehouse outfitted with a couple of mats and strength training equipment in Yellowknife’s Kam Lake neighbourhood.

Wilson Elliot, left, and Jenna Nystrom, centre, take a break from practice while assistant coach Whitney weaver watches on. (Garrett Hinchey/CBC)

The practices are intimate affairs, something that Nystrom says helps.

“It’s all in one place, you’re not really overwhelmed by how big it is,” she said. “There’s everything you need.”

The territory is beginning to build a reputation across Canada as a judo powerhouse. That’s not lost on Desforges, or Elliot, who said that judo is more of a “person to person thing.”

“You build your own reputation, as well as that of your province.”

Desforges sees big things in the future for Elliot, saying that he has a chance to become an Olympian if he continues his career.

It’s something Elliot is considering, but not committing to right now – typical for a teenager, perhaps less so for a national champion.

For the moment, there is only Red Deer.

Nystrom and Elliot are both competing Wednesday – and Desforges has high hopes for both.

“We’re not going there for participating. We’re going there to reach the podium,” he said.

“And for Wilson, the top.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Northern speed skaters set records, personal bests at Canada Winter Games, CBC News

Finland: Ice fishing World Championships latest in Finnish series of odd sports events, Yle News

United States: Why a remote wilderness lodge in Alaska became a magnet for mushers, Alaska Public Media

Garrett Hinchey, CBC News

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