Hazelton’s Young Wrestling Champ Takes Home Gold at Nationals 2nd Year in a Row

Q&A with Sara McPhail and her mother Shannon about winning gold with a community rallying behind them.

Sara McPhail on the first place podium at the 2024 Canadian Wrestling Championships in Toronto
2024 Senior Wrestling Canada Championships at TD Place in Ottawa, ON. (Michael P. Hall / Wrestling Canada)

A young national champion in wrestling is returning home to BC with another gold medal in hand. Hazelton’s own Sara McPhail took home the top prize for the second year in a row, winning the ‘Under 17, 69 kilos’ title at just 15 years old for the Vikes Wrestling team at the 2024 Canadian Wrestling Championships in Toronto. Hazelton has produced several star wrestlers like Olympic gold medalist Carol Huynh and Lyndsay Belisle, and it’s very possible the Olympic Games will be in McPhail’s future, too. 

West Coast Now spoke with Sara McPhail and her mother, Shannon, just after the big win about Sara’s passion for wrestling and how the Hazelton and Vanderhoof communities have played an important role in her success. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

West Coast Now (WCN): Sara, how did you get interested in wrestling? What do you love about the sport?

Sara McPhail: I got into wrestling from my cousin, Willa. She invited me to come to practice with her, and I really enjoyed it. I kept coming back to practice, and after my first tournament, I fell so in love. 

Wrestling is a very tough sport for sure, but without it, I wouldn’t have found the friends I have, nor would I have ever known how far I can push myself and my real strength. The wrestling quote I like to follow is “Being tired for 6 minutes is worth a lifetime of victory,” which I was told by one of my old teammates, Fiona Sullivan. The work you put into wrestling is hard, but the outcome fills you with an unexplainable feeling that makes every bit of work worth your while. 

WCN: Tell us about winning your gold medal match at Nationals. Were you nervous? 

Sara McPhail secures a win using a cradle position pin against Khushi Jhalli. The cradle position, a maneuver where the wrestler wraps the opponent’s neck and leg to roll them onto their back, is a key technique for control and pinning. Photo credit: Shannon McPhail

Sara: In my gold medal match, I competed against Khushi Jhalli, who I wrestled at Provincials and lost against. She is a very tough wrestler, which encouraged me to work harder for Nationals. 

Right before my gold medal match I was feeling pretty nervous and made a phone call to a former coach of mine, Addison Bree (who also helped train me right before Nationals during spring break). I asked for some advice, and without his help, I’m not too sure I would have ended up with the same results. Once I stepped out onto the mat I found my family, blew them a kiss and focused on what I needed to do. When the match was over, I was overcome with a warm feeling of excitement, and that’s the feeling I worked so hard for.

WCN: Shannon, it seems like the whole community was rallying behind you and Sara from all the support you were getting on social media. 

Shannon McPhail: Her passion for wrestling is the result of all the love and support she has from her two home communities – one in the Skeena on Gitxsan/Wet’suwet’en territory and the other in the Nechako on Saik’uz territory. 

When I think about all those who have had a hand in her winning two national titles before the age of 16, it’s easy to see that it is the community that holds her up. 

WCN: Who from the community has been integral in her training and getting her to Nationals?

Sara McPhail celebrates with her parents, Shannon and Steve McPhail, alongside Bella Coola wrestling coach Kerry Phillips-Boileau, and fellow athlete Morgan Boileau. Photo credit: Shannon McPhail

Shannon: We made the tough decision to move Sara from Hazelton to Vanderhoof in grade 9 so she could better focus on her academics. Hazelton had an excellent wrestling program under Tom Lee, Jen Zyp and Tim Sullivan. That’s the crew that got her started and still helps her with training whenever she needs it. 

Travis Himmelright (born and raised in the Kispiox Valley and another Hazelton wrestling champion) is the head coach of Vikes Wrestling. John, Jeff and Craig help to complete their excellent coaching team – they aren’t just creating successful athletes, they’re helping to shape youth into strong, resilient adults with integrity. They run an excellent program! Sara may have won a gold medal, but her team is what got her there.

Sara lives with Tom and Taya Silver, and I can’t think of anyone else I would rather have co-parenting our girl. Tom and Taya have really been there for Sara and I am forever grateful for the opportunities they have helped to create. 

WCN: You had mentioned that food from the region fueled her for the championship. What were some of those local sources of the food that Sara was digging into to prepare? 

Sara McPhail’s nutritious diet includes Tahltan moose & Sik-e-Dakh veggie wraps, moose from Gidimt’en clan, egg white macaroons, egg white omelet with mom’s salsa, Skeena chicken on Sik-e-Dakh greens, Skeena chicken and Prince Rupert prawn soup, Skeena sockeye & prawns, grilled veggies & sprouts, Skeena sockeye lettuce wraps, and Skeena sockeye burger. Photo credit: Shannon McPhail

Shannon: She had to drop 5 lbs to make weight, and I don’t believe in crash dieting, so we fueled the shedding of those pounds with moose meat from Tahltan Outfitters, sockeye from Wilp Luutkudziiwus, spot prawns from Jesse & Selina Stoeppler, lean beef from Rachelle Van Zanten, honey from Bulkley Valley Hive and Honey, and greens in every meal from Sik-e-Dakh micro greens!

WCN: What was it like to travel to Ontario and watch her take home the gold medal?

Shannon: It felt like the whole community back home was tuned in! We felt all that support in Toronto! Family and friends from Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Colorado watched live as well! My sister, Kaleigh, got so excited that she wrestled her own chair during Sara’s matches.

While we were in Toronto, Bella Coola Wrestling Coach Kerry Boileau really helped to keep Sara grounded and focused. This was critical! It’s easy to lose sleep or not be able to get your nerves in check. Sara’s former teachers from Hazelton Secondary reached out and cheered her on too! 

Sara’s two-time gold medal achievement is really the product of such supportive, wonderful communities and coaches – and her fierce determination to train hard. We’re pretty proud – but that’s not because of the gold medals. It’s pride in how hard she worked. Win or lose, she showed up and did her best. 

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