They call it “the hump,” everybody in Port Alberni does. It is east of this central Vancouver Island city, where serpentine Highway 4—the only road in or out—slithers over an elevated pass in the Beaufort Mountains. To leave Port Alberni for points east like
Victoria or Vancouver, you must get over the hump. It was here, one day in early 2006, that Travis Cross failed to make the grade.
Life was crazy-busy, over-full of a young man’s dreams in various stages of fulfillment. He’d just finished his four-day shift as a Port Alberni firefighter. “My dream job,” he calls it, in the city where he was born and raised. He’d said goodbye to his wife, Melissa, his highschool sweetheart and the foundation for all other dreams. His preg-
nant wife, Melissa. His desire for a family, and the responsibilities that entails, competed this day with a dream he’d carried since he was a scrawny, 77-lb. teen. One day he would take to the Olympics all he’d learned on the wrestling mats of Port Alberni, and he would earn the gold medal.
At that point, two years ago, on what Cross, now 27, recalls as a cold, rainy day, qualifying for the Summer Games in Beijing was the longest of long shots. For every four-day fire shift, he got four days off. He’d bundle up his wrestling gear and take the ferry to the mainland to train with the Burnaby Mountain Wrestling Club, an elite program at Simon Fraser University that spawned such stars as Olympic gold medallist Daniel Igali. He worked the mats with the club’s top-level wrestlers and coaches, couch-surfed among friends for a place to sleep at night, then bolted for the ferry and back to work. Melissa tolerated the absences. She, too, believes in the dream.
“Fve never known him not to wrestle,” she says today, bouncing their son, Nicholas, now 17 months, on her lap. “It’s just part of who he is, for as long as I’ve known him. It just came with the package.”
But goals can be a burden, and that day, the gravitational pull from Port Alberni was too much to bear. “I stopped at the top of the hump and pulled over,” Cross recalls, sitting in the living room of his boyhood home, the stucco bungalow he and Melissa bought from his parents. “I thought to myself, I just can’t keep doing this. It’s 2006, looking at 2008, and having a kid on the way. I can’t keep this lifestyle up.” He turned around.
The dream might have died then; many do, for the Olympics demand everything of its athletes, and those they love. Instead, Cross drove to the office of Tom McEvay, the principal of alternative programs for the Alberni school district. McEvay arrived in the city 30 years ago as a young phys. ed. teacher. There was a bit of a wrestling program, which flourished under his care. There is also a top-flight Alberni wrestling club, of which he is director. McEvay coaxed 12-year-old Cross into the wrestling program. He became a coach, a mentor and a friend. If you need help, particularly in the realm of education or sport, McEvay is one of your go-to guys. Cross arrived
that day looking lost. “I didn’t have to say too much for him to kind of understand what I was feeling and that I needed help,” he says. “Tom will never turn you away.”
Later, McEvay picks up the story. “It was an emotional day,” he recalls. They hatched an audacious plan: if Cross couldn’t go to the training, the training would come to him. They’d raise money to lure elite wrestlers to Port Alberni. “If this is the dream,” McEvay promised, “there are people behind you.” And so it began. Sponsors came out of the woodwork: restaurants, businesses, service clubs and friends. Fundraising T-shirts and decals were sold bearing a logo designed by a former student. It shows Cross wrestling a Chinese panda, in front of the Great Wall.
You see them everywhere in town. Key to the plan was a world-class wrestling partner. Imagine the pitch: come to Port Alberni to get tossed around the mats so, maybe, a guy named Travis can qualify for Beijing.
Something about the crazy idea appealed to Ivan Diaconu. A former Moldovan national wrestling champion, who’d finished sixth in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, he was recruited through a mutual friend, and arrived from Moldova in June 2006. He spoke little English, and knew neither Cross nor McEvay. He’d left behind his wife and young daughter, for what he thought would be an interesting few months. “I wrestled in the Olympics,” he says. “If I can help somebody else reach that level, why not?” They’ve been throwing each other around the gym of A. W. Neill Middle School ever since. A friend-
ship grew. Diaconu’s visa was extended. He took a job at a local mill, and another, coaching at a local college. “My wife had just finished university and she’d started a job. I called her and said, ‘let’s go to Canada.’ She said, ‘What!’ ” He promised her stability, opportunity, and “lots of nice people.”
Since the plan was put in place, Cross added a second and third national championship to his resumé. He’s made three trips to the world championships, finishing eighth last September in Azerbaijan, earning an Olympic qualifying spot for Canada in the 84-kg division. At the Canadian qualifiers in December, he won that spot for himself. A good thing, too. Such is the spirit of Port Alberni that 65 people had already booked trips to Beijing. Some would take that as added pressure, but like any good wrestler, Cross turns the momentum to his advantage. Such faith gives him confidence, he says. “It takes a community to raise an Olympian.”
Since he qualified, fundraising efforts have intensified. Fellow firefighters began working his shifts. Between that, holidays, and a city-funded leave, Cross now trains full time. Of course, says firefighter Herb Nadig, “There’ll be trucks to wash when he gets back.”
Community rallies have marked every milestone. In February, Cross was honoured at the provincial wrestling championships, staged this year in Port Alberni. An immigration officer arrived from Nanaimo for the event. “She presented Ivan with his permanent residency card, in front of1,200 people,” says McEvay. “And then we sang 0 Canada. It was unbelievable.” Training with Cross, who wrestles in a heavier weight class, has rekindled 32-year-old Diaconu’s own competitive spirit. He wants to become a citizen, he says. He wants to wrestle for Canada.
That’s how it is, sometimes, when the road is long and hard and you think you can’t go on. Really, it means you can’t go alone. The day Travis Cross couldn’t get over the hump was the day he learned to reach out. He found a community willing to share the burden of his dreams. He found a better road to China, and in doing so, the lives of two young families, the Crosses and the Diaconus, were forever changed. M
TRAVIS CROSS: OLYMPIC NUGGETS
Why wrestling? My brother started wrestling and asked me to come out.
I followed him into wrestling and stuck with it. He ended up quitting.
Do you remember your first competition? It was at the [Vancouver] Island novice tournament. I remember I had to wrestle this guy called Spider in the finals. Anyway, I ended up beating him and felt pretty good about myself.
I was wearing shorts with the pockets taped and Van running shoes with the metal eyelets taped. I must have looked real threatening. I was 12, a pretty scrawny little kid.
Pre-match ritual or lucky charm?
I try to stay away from them but I do have a couple of things my wife and cousins gave to me. They're kind of little tokens, mementoes to remind me what I'm wrestling for. It helps me relax.
Special diet? It has to be healthy but I eat as much as possible. Close to 3,000 calories a day, I guess. It consists of eating very often, about five meals a day. I love salmon. I love barbecue.
Training music? Anything with a good beat. Some Tom Petty or [Tragically] Hip. I like the classic rock.
Worst or most embarrassing moment in competition? Coming to the mat unshaven. I had five minutes to go shave. I grabbed a razor and dry shaved and had cuts all over my face. They had a rule you had to be either clean-shaven or have a certain length of beard. So I did a nice hack job on my face and went out and wrestled.
Inspirational quote? It's [the one] where Vince Lombardi said success is measured from how high you bounce back after you hit the bottom.
The secret to surviving on Canadian amateur sport funding?
Become a firefighter.
Post-competition life plans? I want to be a coach. I'll be a part of the [wrestling] program here for sure.
But most important is to spend time with my family. Strengthen that part of my life.
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