Daniel Igali honours adopted country with special flag tribute in Sydney

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Daniel Igali celebrates his gold medal victory at the Sydney Olympics, 2000. (AP Photo/J.Pat Carter)

When wrestler Daniel Igali won the gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, it was the final step on a long journey through poverty, loneliness and anguish.

His emotional celebration after winning the 69-kilogram class was a heartfelt acknowledgement to the adopted country that helped make the trip possible and remains etched in the memory of many Canadians.

In the moments after winning Canada's first Olympic wrestling gold, Igali placed a Canadian flag on the mat, knelt down, kissed it and then ran around it. When the medal was hung around his neck, Igali broke into tears and wept through the playing of O Canada.

[Vote: Which is Canada's most memorable Summer Olympics moments?]

Some medal celebrations are contrived and self-centered. Igali's was sincere, a tribute to the all the people who helped make him a champion. It was an iconic moment of pride and success.

"Putting it [the Maple Leaf] down and running around was saying I made a complete cycle," the 26-year-old told reporters who interviewed him in the steaming hot Sydney Convention Centre. "Six years ago [I came to Canada] and I've realized all my dreams. So I had to make a lap around to show that I've come full ‘round."

The tale of Igali's life reads like the script from a Hollywood movie.

Baraladei Daniel Igali was born Feb. 3, 1974, in the Niger Delta. He grew up in the poor village of Eniwari, the sixth of 21 children. The family slept three to a bed. There was only enough food for two meals a day.

Igali learned to wrestle as a child. Sometimes he had to wrestle his siblings to get something to eat. At the age of 16 he won his first national competition.

At 20, Igali was the African National Champion and attended the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria as a member of the Nigerian team. Frustrated with his lack of opportunity in Nigeria, he made the difficult decision to seek refugee status in Canada.

[Slideshow: Canadian Olympic gold-medal winning wrestler Daniel Igali]

Igali continued to wrestle at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. It was a hard, lonely time as he struggled to adapt to a new country.

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Daniel Igali kisses the Canadian flag to honour his newly adopted home country.

"Sometimes, when you don't even have the bus fair to go to practice and you're not a Canadian citizen so you don't have any support from the government, it was very tough," he said.

It was during this time Igali meet a woman who would become his surrogate mother and have a profound impact on his life. Maureen Matheny was the mother-in-law of his closest friend. She was there when Igali received his Canadian citizenship in 1998. Igali holidayed with her family.

Matheny planned to travel to Turkey to watch Igali compete in the 1999 world championships but the trip was scuttled when she was diagnosed with cancer. Igali won the gold medal, becoming the first Canadian male to win the freestyle championship. He returned to Vancouver and showed the medal to Matheny, who died a few days later.

Igali went to the Sydney Olympics as the defending world champion. He carried the extra pressure of being one of Canada's best hopes for a gold medal. A compact, muscled man who stood five-foot-eight and weighed 151 pounds, Igali relied on speed and balance to win matches.

During the Games, Igali fought with a sore shoulder. He needed extra time to triumph in his quarter-final and semi-final matches.

[Scouting report: How many medals can Canada's 2012 Olympic wrestlers win?]

The night before the gold medal match, Igali dreamed about Matheny.

"The last words that she said to me [were] ‘I'm very proud of you,' " Igali told The Toronto Sun. "I woke up after that and I was just pumped and I was ready to go.

"She told me she was going to be here and she has never broken a promise. I'm very positive she was here."

Igali faced Russian Arsen Gitinov for the gold. He took a 3-0 lead early in the match but Gitinov battled back to tie the score 4-4. Igali remained calm and in the dying seconds of the second round turned the Russian to take a 6-4 lead. He won the match 7-4.

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Igali carries the flag at the opening ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games, in Manchester, England, 2002. (CP PHOTO/Andrew …

"I wanted to win this badly," he said afterward. "I wanted to prove I could stand with the best in the world and be the best on the night."

Igali was further rewarded when he was selected to carry the Canadian flag at the Closing Ceremony.

Igali wrestled again at the 2004 Olympics in Athens but was forced to fight in the 74-kilogram class. Slowed by injuries he was eliminated in the quarter-finals.

Igali sought election as a Liberal in the 2005 B.C. provincial election but lost. Always one to give back, he established the Daniel Igali Foundation which built the Maureen Matheny Academy in his old village of Eniwari.

Igali remained involved in wrestling, acting as a coach for the Nigerian team. Some of his athletes won medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

Canadian athletes won 14 medals in Sydney, including three gold. Igali's outspoken affection for his country might have made his medal shine the brightest.

"I would not have wished to have done it for another country," he said at the time. "I am who I am because of Canada. I've got this status, I've got the help I needed from being in Canada. I wouldn't be a world champion if I were back in Nigeria.

"Six years ago, I never dreamed of being who I am now…My dream is finally unfolding in front of my eyes."

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