Rilee Good Eagle overcomes incredible loss by finding a silver lining in long distance running

The November air cuts at the skin within minutes of contact. It’s the coldest day of the month in the snow-covered reserve of Siksika Nation. It is a rare sight to see anyone outside for long.

Despite the weather, Rilee Good Eagle, wearing a suit of spandex and winter running gear, pushes himself to keep running.

Raised on the Siksika Nation, Good Eagle is one of the Blackfoot Confederacy’s rising stars. At the North American Indigenous Games this past summer, he won three of Team Alberta’s 21 medals and the first gold of the Games in the 3000-metre race.

He has participated in the Edmonton Marathon, was a walk-on for the University of Calgary track team and has won several high school track and field titles, and has been on numerous trips to provincial championships.

Blessed with the gift of speed and endurance, Good Eagle’s quiet and soft nature overpowers any hint of self-importance or pride. Overall, he owes a lot of his character to the place where he grew up.

“Growing up on a reserve, it’s very different from any other type of upbringing,” said Good Eagle. “People talk about leaving and doing something better, but I love it here. It’s peaceful and really beautiful.”

As a young kid, family constantly surrounded Rilee — especially his cousins.

“I looked up to them and learned from them. They were much more than cousins, they were brothers and sisters. We would always be playing and it was one of the happiest times of my life.”

Good Eagle — a ten year old at the time — recalls the first time he knew that running was going to be a big part of his life. At a grade five track meet, he was encouraged by his teacher to participate, and from there, he never looked back.

Lorie Holmes, that grade five teacher, reminiscences about Good Eagle realizing his potential as a runner.

“Everyone at the meet had running shoes and gym wear, except for me. II was the kid from the reserve that ran the race in jeans and skater shoes and I won.”

– Rilee Good Eagle

“Early on Rilee demonstrated tremendous athletic skills when it came to long distance running,” said Holmes. “You could see it during recess when all he would do is just run. And I knew he would immediately be successful in track at the junior and senior high level.”

“Everyone at the meet had running shoes and gym wear, except for me,” Good Eagle recalls. “I was the kid from the reserve that ran the race in jeans and skater shoes and I won.”

He gives a lot of the credit regarding his success to his biggest supporter, his dad Morris.

“We were really close. I could tell him anything and he always pushed me and encouraged me to keep going with my running,” said Good Eagle. “He was truly my best friend.”

Good Eagle graduated from Bassano school in June 2013 with dreams of enrolling into university and running for a track team. Tragically, his father and close cousin Dustin McMaster passed away that same month.

During the summer of 2013, dealing with the tremendous losses, he sought comfort in the only way he thought would help — drugs and alcohol.

“I was in a really dark place. I was overwhelmed and I wanted to be left alone. I didn’t enroll into school and I felt like I lost my family. I got into some bad stuff trying to get over my past and it made things worse.”

Good Eagle said that the tide of change that made him realize that he should quit was his three younger siblings, specifically his brother Braden.

Good Eagle with his siblings and dad at graduation in May 2013. Less than a month later, his father passed away.

Photo courtesy of Rilee Good Eagle“One day he came up to me and said, ‘Why are you doing this?’ It really got me thinking. I didn’t want my younger siblings to look up to me when I was doing that. So I decided that was the end of it.”

With the support from family, he focused on running and training. He gave up his old habits and made a journey to a healthier lifestyle. Running gave him an escape and with all of his time and effort, a silver lining appeared.

He was recruited by the University of Calgary as a walk-on for the track team. He was able to compete at the university level, despite not reaching his goal of being a student.

Mike Van Tighem, endurance coach for the U of C track team, said Good Eagle overcame adversity and really made a difference for the team.

“Rilee stands out because he advocates for himself and simply refuses to give up,” said Van Tighem. “He is extremely self-reliant and is dedicated to doing his training even when it means travelling long distances to practice, or training on his own. Rilee is not afraid to put himself to the test and will give 110 per cent in every competition: from local meets to provincial championships.”

Good Eagle competing at the North American Indigenous Games in Saskatoon in Aug. 2014. “Running saved my life,” says Good Eagle.

Photo courtesy of Rilee Good EagleVan Tighem said that his character overpowered any hint of the hurt the Blackfoot runner was faced with.

“I don’t have personal knowledge of Rilee’s hardships, but what stands out is his love of family, desire to improve himself as an athlete and as a person and his respectful and appreciative manner. He has been a pleasure to coach.”

Good Eagle plans to continue running and inspiring First Nation youth not only from Siksika, but Alberta.

“I want to be one of the best and I want kids to know that no one is perfect. You’re going to go through things in life and it’s going to hurt, but drugs and alcohol aren’t the answer to dealing with pain. Use your past as a motivation and your struggles to stay focused on your goals.”

He also wants to break the stereotype of First Nations and addictions.

“We’re not all perfect,” said Good Eagle. “A lot of people think First Nations people are a bunch of drunks and into their addictions. I don’t want to be that stereotype. And I want to inspire others to keep motivated and success will come their way.”

ksolway@cjournal.ca