Where are they now? – Daniel Igali
Olympic gold was just the start of his impressive career
Many know Daniel Igali for coming to Canada after the 1994 Commonwealth Games and becoming one of the most successful Canadian male wrestlers. His notoriety took off after winning gold at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, but that was just the start of what has been an impressive career both on and off the mats.
Igali grew up in Nigeria and admits he doesn’t remember how he got into wrestling; it was simply part of the culture of his Ijaw tribe. “Everybody grows up wrestling, it is like swimming, because we are close to the sea. You grow up doing it and, at three years old, you know how to swim but don’t know who taught you. That is how wrestling was for me,” remembers Igali.
While he started wrestling on grass, Igali soon graduated to mats and began competing on the international stage. After the 1994 Commonwealth Games, in Victoria, B.C., he was enamoured with the style and quality of Canadian wrestlers and decided to remain in Canada. “The Canadians were amazing they won nine out of 10 gold medals. I admired them a lot, they were the best wrestlers I had seen, and I just wanted to wrestle remotely close to them. I stayed back and started going to school at Douglas College, then Simon Fraser University. I knew that staying would improve my life in education and wrestling, which at the time, were the most important things in my life.”
In 2000, Igali became a household name when he captured Canada’s first wrestling gold medal at the Olympics in the men’s 69kg weight class. While that was a special moment for Igali, he says his wrestling highlight came before the Olympic medal when he won gold at the World Championships in 1999. “I would say my biggest achievement was the World Championships, because of the circumstances. Three weeks before I had to undergo surgery on my knee. I didn’t think I could wrestle but I went to France for a camp before the World Championships. The camp went well, and we decided that I should go and try. It was in that process of trying it out that I won my first and only World Championship title.”
After his wrestling career, Igali began to put the other lessons he learnt in Canada to work, as he entered the political arena. “When I grew up my dad was involved in politics, so I was very politically aware of issues early on. Even in secondary school, I was captain of our debate team and involved in student issues. Then, in Canada in 2005, I contested for provincial legislature in British Columbia, but I unfortunately fell short.”
However, during this time, Igali was re-establishing himself in his native country of Nigeria and would soon get the chance to hold a similar role there. “When I went back to Nigeria, I had the opportunity to contest in 2011 for the state legislature of Bayelsa. I was elected and was there for eight years. By the time I left I had passed the most bills by an individual.”
While working in Nigeria, Igali naturally gravitated to the wrestling program. He had been helping the national federation on and off ever since he won the Olympic medal but in 2006, he began coaching the Bayelsa state team. In 2007, the sport minister asked him to coach the national team. Igali had them competing in all the major international events and in 2009, the team broke through with their first World Championship bronze medal. “Then we went to the 2011 Commonwealth Games and that’s when the results started to show. Before then, Nigeria had attended six Games, but our gold medal count was only one. In 2011, we won three gold medals, that’s when things started to take off. Since then, we have consistently done well at the world championships, and are now more competitive with the likes of Canada and India.”
Igali rose to become the president of the Nigerian Wrestling Federation, a position he still holds, but his passion for sport and politics eventually came together in 2019 when he became the Minister for Youth Sports Development in Bayelsa. Now, he not only looks after wrestling but a variety of sports and teams that all fall under his portfolio. “The job itself is very satisfying, for me it is not even a job it is a hobby because you are travelling with the teams, trying to get funds for them, helping coaches’ development, building facilities, so it is right in my forte.”
Clearly, Igali doesn’t see his two current roles as a job because he was willing to take on another role recently as he was elected to the UWW bureau. “It is still within what I love to do, and it is wrestling specific. Before I was on the wrestling commission, but I think this will be more hands on. With my background, I think I can help make recommendations and it will be a lot of fun. I have always wanted to be on the bureau, this time I contested and am grateful to be on it.”
His role on the UWW bureau will be just another opportunity for Igali to contribute to the growth of wrestling worldwide. Igali already has many achievements that showcase him giving back to the community but if you ask him what stands out the most, he will tell you about the Dynamite Wrestling Centre. “In 2012, I started building a centre where athletes could come train. In Nigeria, it can be tough to use public facilities, so I started building the facility. Two years ago, I applied and received grants from UWW. Now, the centre accommodates a mat, 17 rooms, and two gyms with training equipment. The national team trains there full-time and other clubs go there to train as well. We are also expecting other countries to send athletes to train at the centre. I make as much time as I can to go there and coach in the gym myself.”
Moving forward Igali’s goal is to make Nigeria a top 10 wrestling nation. He knows that it will be difficult as, much like other countries, he is trying to get some consistency in terms of funding. “We have many kids who want to wrestle but the conflicting part is funding. I just hope we can support the sport, so athletes can showcase what they have, and we can become one of the best teams in the world.”