Monday, August 18, 2008

A golden day for village that reached out to family

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 18, 2008


The long march to an Olympic gold medal in wrestling began when a church group in an isolated British Columbia village agreed to sponsor refugees from Vietnam.

The small United Church congregation at Hazelton promised to house and support the Huynh family — a mother, a father, a boy, a girl and an uncle. They arrived in winter, a harsh time in the Bulkley Valley even for those for whom cold is not a stranger.

"They could not speak one word of English other than 'thank you' and 'hi,' " remembers Janet Francis, 65, a semi-retired nurse.

The family's first home was a two-bedroom farm house on Dewey Cummins' acreage. Mr. Cummins hired the men to build a barn.

The first small steps in rebuilding a life had begun.

In November, 1980, a daughter was born in the new land. Her parents decided to give her an English name. With Christmas songs in the air, they chose Carol. She would bring to the family great honour.

The generosity of a church congregation helped establish a family, whose thrift and hard work would allow their five children to achieve success around the globe.

At school, the single-minded dedication of a coach helped create an Olympic champion.

In Hazelton and its surrounding hamlets and reserves, the chance to support an aspiring athlete brought together communities for whom economic deprivation is common, and tragedy only too familiar. The hardships have been ignored, even if only temporarily, as they have cheered on one of their own doing battle half a world away.

Early Saturday morning, as the clocked approached 2 a.m. Pacific, townsfolk gathered at the Hazelton fire hall to watch on television the final match in the 48-kilogram division of women's freestyle wrestling. Appearing on the big screen larger than life, her hair clipped into high pigtails, making her look like Baby Spice with attitude, Ms. Huynh crouched in a combat pose on a mat at the China Agricultural University Gymnasium in Beijing.

Her aggressive style and swift attacks seemed to catch her Japanese opponent by surprise. The Canadian wrestler won both rounds to upset a three-time world champion to claim her birthplace's first gold medal of the 2008 Summer Games.

In the stands in Beijing, her mother wept and her father cheered.

Back in Hazelton, an audience knowledgeable in the finer points of grappling praised the audacity of her strategy.

"She wrestled so well, so aggressively," said Debbie Brauer, who served as a chaperone for the high school wrestling team.

Hours before the final bout, she posted a message on the athlete's eponymous — — web page. "Just do what you do, kiddo!" she wrote. "Your ole 'wrestling mum' is cheering from afar."

Her family name is pronounced ween, which, appropriately enough, sounds a lot like win.

The Huynhs arrived in Canada after fleeing their native Vietnam in an exodus whose members came to be known as the Boat People. From 1978 to 1981, more than a million refugees fled their Indochinese homelands in the wake of the Vietnam War. Many risked their lives on barely seaworthy vessels before winding up in the limbo of refugee camps.

Canada accepted more than 60,000 refugees in the largest program of its kind in Canadian history. The humanitarian motive was not shared by all Canadians, as many individuals and groups warned the country would be swamped.

More than half of the refugees were sponsored by private citizens, while others, such as the Huynhs, were sponsored by church groups and other organizations. About six in 10 wound up in big cities. Others were scattered to smaller communities across the land.

The wrestler, who now trains and lives in Calgary, lasted visited her hometown in April. She spoke to students at all four area schools before attending a fundraiser called "A Night in Beijing" at which Chinese tidbits prepared by a local culinary school were served. Other money came from T-shirt sales and a bucket auction. The Gitanmaax fire department held a car wash.

The community includes two municipalities, three unincorporated settlements, and four First Nations villages. The largest is New Hazelton, population 750.

"This is a community that reaches out," Ms. Brauer said. "Kinship is very strong. It's a community that, despite its problems, really does pull together. It's not what you do for a living, or what colour your skin is, but who you are that matters."

The area has struggled with high unemployment with the slump in the forest industry. Suicide among the youth is a deep concern.

Ten days ago, locals were stunned to learn of the death of a Hazelton mother and her 15-year-old daughter killed in a traffic accident in Uxbridge, Ont.

"I don't think great joy washes away great sorrow," said Hazelton Mayor Alice Maitland. "It's been a tough week."

Mrs. Maitland, who has been mayor for 32 years, said many in the community want to place a sign along Highway 16 announcing Hazelton as the home of Carol Huynh.

For many years, the high school wrestling team held the area's attention.

Joe Sullivan, a burly, barrel-chested military veteran, inherited the Hazelton Secondary wrestling program when he moved there in 1986. He had an open-door policy. Any student — fat or skinny, clumsy or agile — could join the wrestling team. At one point, he had 50 members, one-tenth of the school population.

He designed the workouts to be as much social event as physical exercise. He also combined fundraising with fitness training, buying a wood splitter and chainsaws, as well as an old truck for deliveries, as the wrestling team cut and sold firewood.

The money helped buy two 15-passenger vans. Road trips to tournaments involved grueling treks on truck-choked highways through mountain passes. Since wrestling is a winter sport, these two-day hauls often took place during blowing snow storms.

"We joke that we're at the centre of the world," Ms. Brauer said, "because we're 1,200 kilometres from anything."

(Indeed, Hazelton is 1,198 km north of Vancouver, 1,183 km west of Edmonton, and 1,179 km south of Whitehorse.)

Mr. Sullivan was born in Los Angeles during the Second World War. His father was an artillery officer who parachuted behind enemy lines in German-occupied Normandy in the weeks prior to the D-Day invasion. The boy grew up in Sand Springs, Okla., wrestling in high school before enrolling at his father's alma mater at Iowa State, where he also followed his father onto the wrestling team.

Mr. Sullivan also matched his father's military service, getting a security and intelligence assignment in Turkey, where his job involved "surveillance of military units not in Turkey." He helped monitor the Soviet military from 1960 to 1963, including the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the hottest time of the Cold War.

His stint in Turkey gave him an opportunity to train with the Turkish national team, which was the undisputed world leader in the sport.

He returned stateside, graduating from Iowa State n 1967, before completing a masters degree in forestry at the University of Montana. His next stop was Vermillion (now Lakeland) College in Alberta, where he taught environmental sciences and coached the wrestling team. After five years in Hartley Bay, the isolated coastal community in British Columbia whose residents later were hailed as heroes for saving the passengers of a sinking ferry, he moved his family to Hazelton.

The first member of the Huynh family he coached was Carol's older sister Ngoc.

Her father, a traditionalist, was reluctant to have his daughter travel and uncertain as to the worthiness of wrestling. The permission slips were discreetly slipped to her mother for approval. In time, the father came around.

By then, the refugee family had become firmly established in Hazelton. The mother, Mai, worked as a seamstress and as a waitress. The father, Viem, worked as a lumber grader at the Carnaby Sawmill, owned by Mr. Cummins. He also did carpentry, building the lectern that graces the United Church to this day.

The family moved from the borrowed farmhouse to a trailer to a larger home, which eventually was mortgaged so they could purchase the 12-room Bulkley Valley Motel. They sold the business earlier this year to move to Prince George, where their youngest son is studying. Another son is in Denver and a daughter in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, while Ngoc works as an emergency-room nurse at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

After his wife died, Mr. Cummins regularly joined the Huynh family for dinner.

Now aged 92, living in the Skeena Place assisted living centre, he says of the Olympian, "She is my Vietnamese granddaughter."

Carol Huynh joined the wrestling team in Grade 10. She was a special athlete even in a program that won uncounted titles and several provincial championships.

"Some things you cannot teach," Mr. Sullivan said. "She had those. Quickness, balance, power and grace. She's as graceful as a gazelle."

Four years ago, his joints aching from arthritis, Mr. Sullivan had to go on disability leave. The school wrestling program, which also produced such successful athletes as the Pan-American Games champion and 2004 Olympian Lyndsay Belisle, lasted a year, before collapsing.

Mr. Sullivan was camping overnight and missed the gold medal match. He got word the next morning. He returned home, where his television has access to neither cable, nor satellite, nor even rabbit ears. It does have a videocassette recorder on which he watches movies and wrestling tapes.

Ms. Brauer brought him a tape of the gold-medal match.

The old coach may have been the last person in town to witness his protege's triumph.

Special to The Globe and Mail