Returning to Quebec with five new medals from the 2008 North American Indigenous Games in Cowichan, B.C., swimmer Gabriel Rabbitskin is proud of his wins for Mistissini and hopes there are many more to come.
Despite winning four gold medals at this year’s NAIG, Rabbitskin’s silver win was the one he considered his biggest achievement as he managed to beat his own personal best time.
“It was the biggest accomplishment because it was only the second time in my life that I did that swim. It was the 100m freestyle, it’s a sprint and in the finals it was all pretty close,” said Rabbitskin.
Still Rabbitskin was amazed because he didn’t think he could do it. But to pull it off when it counted allowed him to savour the win even more.
Though the 2008 NAIG may have been Rabbitskin’s third crack at the games, it was his defeat at the 2005 games that had him coming back so strong. After a seven-medal win at the 2002 Winnipeg games, Rabbitskin changed direction, quit swimming and joined the Eastern Door and the North’s basketball team.
“At the last one we were beat by the U.S. teams. They were just really crazy! After that I started swimming again. I got back into it at least five times a week,” said Rabbitskin.
Getting back into training was difficult. Having been involved with rigorous training from an early age, halting only for his three-year stint in basketball, Gabriel was back at square one, confronting obstacles he had overcome years earlier.
Rabbitskin’s romance with athleticism began at a young age. As his mother insisted that he always participate in some form of physical activity, Gabriel began to swim at the age of five in Chibougamau. By the time he turned seven, his swiftness in the pool had already garnered attention from onlookers who encouraged Rabitskin’s mother to put him into a formal swimming club to compete.
Now, at 19, Rabbitskin is attending Cegep de Riviere-du-Loup where he is studying recreation integration and is on the college’s swim team in hopes of keeping up his training.
Having such a large contingent of Crees at NAIG also added to the experience of being there, said Rabbitskin who felt alone at previous games. Though he could not hear exactly what his supporters from the North were saying while competing due to a Plexiglas barrier between the audience and the competition, he hear the incessant banging on the glass from the enthusiastic bunch.
Rabbitskin dedicated his victories to the people of his hometown, Mistissini, which brought out even more applause. For him however, the wins would have never been possible without the youth of his community.
“I always think about home when times are hard, I think about up there and the kids up there and that always brings me back up,” said Rabbitskin.
Though he is very proud of his successes at NAIG, Rabbitskin is hoping to take his athletic abilities as far as he can in life. Recounting an address Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff made to the Cree athletes, Rabbitskin really took Iserhoff’s motivational message to heart.
“Ashley told us to think big. If you want to be a politician, think about becoming the prime minister or the president. That is what he told me and this is what I want to think about now, probably going into the summer Olympic Games,” said Rabbitskin.
Gabriel also hopes that the participation of the Crees in this year’s games has a ripple effect on the communities in the sense that more kids might be motivated to get into athletic training. Particularly in light of the fact that Mistissini has a new sports complex, Rabbitskin is hoping that it sees a lot of traffic since he understands what kind of a positive effect athletics can have on a young life.
“It keeps your mind open, all that training and hard work!” said Rabbitskin.
At the same time, a life as a swimming champ has meant a great deal of sacrifice for the gold medalist as Rabbitskin has had to forgo plenty of parties and social events with friends to stick to his rigorous six-days-a-week training schedule. Thankfully there were always plenty of people in his corner to keep him motivated, particularly his mother who he credits as being his biggest supporter.
As he is only at the beginning of what is most likely going to be a brilliant athletic career, though Rabbitskin’s eyes are looking towards the future, his heart is still in the North. His message to the youth of the Cree Nation was simply, “be proud of what you are, always keep your head up, never put it down,” but, most importantly, “think big!”