Gold medal runner and motivational speaker Rilee Manybears delivered an inspiring message to the staff and students of the White Bear Education Complex and members of the White Bear First Nations educational community, during WBEC's April 24-25 conference at the Bear Claw Casino.
Manybears' talk chronicled his triumphs as an elite athlete and a successful student - one who is currently considering scholarships to four U.S. universities. However, the 22-year-old also walked his audience through the many challenges he has overcome on his journey to athletic and academic success.
The 22-year-old was raised on Siksika Nation, near Calgary where he lived with his parents and three younger siblings.
“I saw and sometimes experienced the negative effects of trauma - poverty, drugs and alcohol,” he says. “And sometimes, my family had no food. But you use humour during tough times. One of my younger siblings said to me once: 'Rilee, what's for supper? And I said: Sleep!'”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures and for me, school was often an escape from a negative environment.”
“An Elder told me that education is our buffalo,” he says. “You can use it for everything. That diploma, degree, Masters or PhD is like the buffalo - it gives you food, shelter, everything.”
An elementary school teacher encouraged him to join his school's track and field team and later, Manybears became a cross country runner as well as a member of basketball, volleyball and golf teams throughout his school years.
“When I was introduced to track and field by that grade five teacher, I showed up and everyone else had nice running gear,” says Manybears. “I didn't, but I took the race in these big, bulky DC shoes. And then I won the 400 (km) in socks, with bleeding feet.”
“I ran a lot just between my house and my two cousins' houses,” says Manybears. “I saw one of my cousin's medals and I wanted that, too.”
During grade 12, he set a record by competing in four different ASAA (Alberta School Athletic Association) Provincial Championships in one year, as he competed in track and field, cross country, volleyball and skills.
However, Manybears began struggling with drugs and alcohol in an effort to numb his pain and grief as he experienced the death of his father and the suicides of other close family members. As a result, he continued to struggle on and off with addiction.
“I figured out that negative role models could really contribute to a destructive lifestyle,” he says. “I struggled too, but during times that were heartbreaking for me, I was still active and I would often play every sport I could to keep my mind off things.”
“My parents were young and they did the best they could,” he says. “They suffered from trauma, too.”
“By the time I was almost finished high school, I had failed my core classes and I almost quit - but where would I go?” he says. “I didn't want to be that stereotypical native kid who drops out of school.”
“I was still trying to pick out positive role models and then a senior Siksika member said to me: 'Are you going to be the next Billy Mills?'”
“I soon learned that Bill Mills was a Native American who ran the 10,000 metres in Tokyo in 1964 who won the (Olympic) gold medal. I thought: 'He's my role model - even though I hadn't even met him yet.”
“In my senior year of high school, I wrote a list of goals,” explains Manybears. “One of my goals was to go to post-secondary. I was planning to move to Calgary, where I was accepted into the U of C (University of Calgary).”
“My dad walked up to me and told me 'I'm so proud of you; so proud you're my son and that I'm your father.'”
Soon after, Manybears received a devastating phone call.
“Dad passed away,” he says. “Then I just broke. I couldn't pick myself up. I just saw him the night before. That summer, I drank, I dropped out of university after two weeks and I got into that lifestyle I said I'd never get into.”
Eventually, his younger brother helped Manybears realize that this self-destructive path was hurting his family and with his sibling's encouragement, he began running again in an effort to heal.
“Basically, he was babysitting a big 18-year-old,” says Manybears. “But I moved back in with my auntie, got therapy and was still training.”
“But that lifestyle kept pulling me in until an Elder invited me to a sweat.”
Just a year later, Manybears began training for the 2014 North American Indigenous Games in Regina. There, he won the gold medal in the 3,000 meter race and was awarded two bronze medals in the 1,500 meter race and the 6 km cross country event.
In 2014, he also met his role model, Olympian Billy Mills at a NIKE event in Oregon.
“I literally cried meeting him,” says Manybears. “I shook his hand and he signed my shirt.”
“But the most important thing I took away from (Billy Mills) was that message of perseverence and hope.”
“I literally followed him around in Portland,” says Manybears. “Being around someone you really admire feels really good.”
“It was a celebration honouring his Olympic gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics,” he says. “I learned that he was an orphan and that he'd experienced racism growing up in Kansas, but he overcame all that to win a gold medal and inspire other people.”
Manybears began training with the University of Calgary Track & Field team in preparation for the 2014 Canadian Cross Country Championships in Vancouver, which led to a triumph on the international stage.
He earned a gold medal at the first World Indigenous Games in Palmas, Tocantins, Brazil in 2015. He came first in the 8 km event as he joined over 1,500 fellow Indigenous athletes from 20 countries in competition, but also in a spirit of cameraderie.
“I was a world champion,” he says. “But that wasn't it. It was me being proud of being Indigenous. And experiencing Indigenous culture from all over the world, celebrating the ways of our people.”
At the invitation of his mentor and 1964 Olympic gold medallist, Billy Mills, Manybears ran the 2016 Boston Marathon after being selected as a member of USA Team Running Strong.
“Billy Mills invited me to run the Boston Marathon,” he says. “Before I ran, I had heart surgery. The first operation didn't work, so we tried 'Operation B.' It was really risky, but I ran the Boston Marathon.”
“It all started when I was almost selected for the 2015 Pan Am Games for Team Canada,” says Manybears. “It was a hot summer day and I collapsed and woke up in the ER. I was told I had a heart condition and that I'd never be active again. As a dumb 19-year-old teenager, I drank. But then I got the invite to the World Indigenous Games in Brazil and I quit drinking, got back into shape and with the help of a cardiologist, started training smart.”
“If I would have stayed in that negative lifestyle, I would have missed so much.”
Currently, Manybears is considering scholarship offers from four U.S. universities - one of which is Billy Mills' alma mater - the University of Kansas.
“It's my modern buffalo,” he says. “I told my siblings 'I think it's time for me to go back to school.'”
“I've learned that the world isn't always a nice place,” says Manybears. “It can knock you down, but you can choose whether you get back up.”
Rilee Manybears produced a short documentary film,“The Failure Way” was released in 2016. He continues to speak at various events in Alberta - and now Saskatchewan - in an effort to inspire youth with his message of perseverence and hope.
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