JUNEAU, Alaska – To most spectators, the term “Olympics” means world-class swimming competitions, downhill skiing or the 100-meter dash.
But near the Arctic Circle, a different type of Olympics for young people pays homage to the region’s subsistence hunters and the methods they’ve used for centuries to feed their families and stay alive in harsh conditions.
This week, more than 400 high school students from across Alaska will gather in Anchorage for the Native Youth Olympics state championships, where 10 events will test their strength, endurance and agility.
The games include the Seal Hop, where competitors bounce for as long as they can on their knuckles and toes, mimicking the act of sneaking up on a sleeping seal; the Indian Stick Pull, where two contestants fight for a greased dowel, simulating grabbing a slippery salmon from the water by the tail; and the Scissor Broad Jump, a half-long-jump, half-scissor-kick event that replicates leaping from one ice floe to the next in the Arctic Ocean.
Towns and villages in Canada, Greenland and Russia also have Native Youth Olympics. Participants compete locally and at larger international gatherings such as the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics and the Arctic Winter Games.
The events teach competitors to respect their fellow athletes, which can have real-life applications in the circumpolar north, where severe weather can force people to rely on each other.
Athletes do not compete against each other as much as they always try for their personal best, and it’s tradition for competitors in the same event to give each other pointers and encouragement. So is always shaking hands with opponents and judges.
Students do not have to be Alaska Native to compete in the Alaska Games, even though the events are designed from cultural activities, said Tim Blume, spokesman for Cook Inlet Tribal Council, an Anchorage-based nonprofit organization that organizes the games.
“That’s really the catalyst of sharing the culture and creating awareness of the differences for all the attendees and the students to share their unique heritage, and learn a little about each other and come together under the aspect of sportsmanship,” he said.
The Alaska Games draw athletes from towns and villages across the nation’s largest state, including a team from Juneau – the first competitors from the state capital in nearly three decades.
Coach Kyle Demientieff-Worl, himself a highly decorated athlete from national and international competitions, is bringing 10 athletes from Juneau in his inaugural team.
He is trying to reinvigorate Native Youth Olympics in Juneau, where it’s had a presence at the grade school level but nothing in higher grades in nearly 30 years. He recruits and encourages students at both of Juneau’s high schools and began organizing the first team late last year. He raised money for the team’s pricy trip to Anchorage, and even made posters on his downtime.
His uncle, Ricardo, was coach when Juneau fielded its last team, around 1990, when athletes’ interest waned.
“Kyle took the games here in Juneau to a whole new level right out of the gate,” his uncle said. “In that short amount of time, he was able to make all these major accomplishments.”
Among those financially supporting the team is the Sealaska Heritage Institute, a Juneau nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and enhance the cultures of southeast Alaska’s Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes. Its president, Rosita Worl (Ricardo’s mother and Kyle’s grandmother), said a survey of more than 400 Native Youth Olympics athletes from across Alaska found a connection to social development, academic achievement and good cross-cultural relationships among native and non-native populations.
“And I said, ‘We’ve got to have it here,’” she said.
One of Juneau’s team members is Bryan Johnson, an 18-year-old senior. He joined for a simple reason: In his first three years of high school, he didn’t really participate in any sports.
“I didn’t do anything, so I’m like, ‘I kind of need to get moving,“’ he said.
Johnson, who is part Tlingit and part Filipino, was soon feeling the burn. “It’s using muscles that you normally wouldn’t use, and since I’m just kind of getting into it, I’m starting to really work out all the parts of my body to get a little higher each time,” he said.
That was his goal in January, after he picked up a few second-place medals in kicking events.
“I really want to try and keep pushing myself and getting higher,” he said.