After winning silver medals in his first two All-Island wrestling tournaments, Gavin Whitt was ready to go for the gold. During his first two years as a Simon Sanchez High School Shark, the kid from Ordot had made a name for himself and was poised for greatness.
But, instead of glory and triumph, his junior year was filled with disappointment and tragedy. In August 2018, Xavier Akima, his best friend, died in a hiking accident. A couple of months later, days before the wrestling season was set to begin, the Sharks ended up not competing.
“During my junior year, when I was preparing for the Olympics, my best friend, Xavier passed away in a hiking accident,” Gavin Whitt said. … “He always knew how to make someone smile. He was the life of the party.”
After Akima's death, Gavin Whitt was left with a void and was often reminded of their time together.
“I spent a lot of time with him, and I know that what we had was real,” Gavin Whitt said. “I’m grateful that I knew him, and I’m glad that I grew up with him.
“I’m just sad that I won’t be able to grow old with him."
Ever since grade school, Gavin Whitt and Akima had been inseparable. Their parents had been great friends, and their families sometimes spent weekends at each other’s houses.
When Gavin Whitt was 11 years old, he and his pal had decided to get into some mischief. Often, the two would climb up on top of each other’s roofs to hang out and play games. Maybe it was boredom, or something that seemed like a good idea, but Gavin Whitt and Akima threw their bicycles on top of the shed, and then hoisted them onto the roof.
“We took our bicycles up there and rode until we got in trouble,” Gavin Whitt said. “We were able to do it because we had an outdoor supply room - a shed - that you would buy at Kmart or something, and it was easy to climb up there. …
“In our defense, the bicycles were really light.
"I got in so much trouble that my mom picked me up early. I was supposed to stay the night, the whole weekend, but it’s OK.”
As the two-year anniversary of Akima’s death approaches, Gavin Whitt remains committed to honoring his friend. Whenever Gavin Whitt steps on a mat and topples an opponent, he does it for Akima.
“I know that he will always be watching me in my matches and every win, and every win in life goes out to him, in everything I do to help make him proud,” he said.
Throughout Gavin Whitt’s life, whenever times got tough, he relied on his older brother's guidance. After the accident, Jonah Whitt comforted his younger brother. No matter what, separated by an ocean, his brother was always there.
“Even though he’s been off island for my whole wrestling career, he was still doing his best to support me because he also wrestled,” Gavin Whitt said. “He knows what I’m feeling because he was in my shoes - everything that I’ve been going through, he understands the most.”
Before Gavin Whitt’s freshman year, his parents had decided to send him to Sanchez High to learn how to wrestle from head coach Tony Aquino. Under Aquino, Gavin Whitt excelled, but, off the mat, he struggled and felt out of place.
“I was the new kid because I was an out-of-district student,” Gavin Whitt said.
"I didn’t have that many friends," he said.
Like a pirate forced to walk the plank, the former Agueda I. Johnston middle schooler felt like a fish out of water. With life’s pressures weighing heavily, again, he reached out to his older brother who was at The United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His brother had always been there for him, and he needed his big brother to set him straight.
“My freshman year, it was hard to find the motivation to keep wrestling, and then my brother found a way to inspire me to just keep going,” Gavin Whitt said. “He has that way with words.
"After a couple of talks with him, I started wrestling at my best, and it was hard for me to stop doing that after he was helping me.”
After a few months, Gavin Whitt found his rhythm, made new friends and became one of the island’s best wrestlers.
“After the first semester, it wasn’t that hard anymore,” he said. “I was glad that I went through that because I am more grateful for my friends - more than ever - because of it.”
A champion wrestler
As Gavin Whitt continued to excel, his gold medal haul increased and his confidence swelled. In his last-ever high school match, in the 132-pound division, he dominated his opponent.
“I knew that I wasn’t afraid to give my last high school match my best,” Gavin Whitt said. “I had already done my best, … and I’m not going to quit.
Gavin Whitt's first gold medal was worth all the hassle, he said, sharing that gaining confidence and staying motivated had been challenging. Having found motivation, Gavin Whitt is glad that he stuck with the wrestling and enjoyed the many life lessons he learned along the way.
“As a wrestler, it taught me that you can’t really rely on anyone else other than yourself," he said. ... "If you don’t train hard, it will definitely show on the day of your match when it’s just you and the other guy that wants to beat you.
"I realized that if you rely on someone else, you won’t be able to win.”
Excellence in class and on the mat
Like his brother, not only was Gavin Whitt an elite athlete, he excelled academically. Jonah Whitt was a Shieh Su-Ying Scholar-Athlete finalist, and now Gavin Whitt remains in the hunt for the coveted award.
At Sanchez, Gavin Whitt enjoyed four years of taking Reserve Officer Training Corps classes and learning about the American government.
He said that he liked learning about the civil rights movement and appreciated his teachers’ passion.
“I really liked the teachers and how passionate they were about what they were teaching, and that inspired me because you really don’t get that many teachers that are super passionate about what they teach,” he said.
As the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minnesota continue unabated, Gavin Whitt is reminded of the protests led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I got to learn about all of the civil rights activists,” Gavin Whitt said. “That’s super relevant, especially with what’s happening right now, within this month, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It’s super relevant that I got to learn some of it, and I’m still learning more about it, even today.”
Whereas studying civil rights introduced Gavin Whitt to several figures in American history, taking ROTC classes taught him to be more understanding of his fellow man.
“ … It teaches you how to be more compassionate for others because you never know what someone else is going through at home,” he said. “It helps bring some perspective and to be more grateful for what you have.
“It also taught me to be very resourceful with what we have.”
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, despite an untraditional high school send-off, Gavin Whitt is preparing for college. With the Maj. Henry San Nicolas Ofeciar ROTC Scholarship in hand, he is eager to start the next chapter of his life at the University of Guam. Without declaring a major, he is entering with eyes wide open and will pounce when something piques his interest.
“I haven’t decided what major yet because that’s a really big decision that will affect the rest of my life,” he said. “I really want to make sure that any major I choose counts because I don’t want to waste that much money.”
Grateful for his family, coaches and friends, the optimistic soon-to-be UOG student has even found the silver lining in his June 9 drive-by high school graduation.
“Honestly, if I’m being completely honest, I liked the drive-by graduation because it’s a lot faster,” he said. “The only downside to that was that you didn't really get to say goodbye to all the friends you made over the past four years."
While he does feel that the pandemic-inspired public health emergency did take away from his high school experience, Gavin Whitt has used the time during quarantine to reflect on a storied career.
“I’m grateful that I had a wrestling season,” he said. “I’m glad I left the mat with no regrets.”