Left: Team Juneau walks in the athlete parade at the Native Youth Olympic Games in Anchorage. Photo courtesy of Michael Dinneen. Right: Team Juneau on their last day of practice before traveling to Anchorage for the NYO Games. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
By Lyndsey Brollini
More than 400 athletes from across the state traveled to Anchorage to compete in the 2019 Native Youth Olympic Games in April, including 12 from Team Juneau.
Team Juneau’s participation in the NYO Games was the culmination of a season of hard work and would not have been possible without the generous support of community members around the region. Gunalchéesh, háw’aa, t’oyaxsn, thank you to everyone who has helped to make this program a success (see details at the end of this post).
This was the second year in a row Team Juneau competed in the statewide NYO Games. Before last year, Juneau did not have a team competing at the NYO Games for nearly 30 years. That changed when Kyle Ḵaayák’w Worl decided to form a ¬team in November 2017. He set up practices at all three Juneau high schools, trained athletes, and organized the first-ever regional Traditional Ga¬mes event in Juneau in March 2018.
This year, lead coach Worl and assistant coach Kaytlynne Lewis trained middle and high school athletes starting as early as September for the statewide NYO Games.
Athletes practicing the One Foot High Kick. Photos by Lyndsey Brollini.
To make the cut for Team Juneau, athletes competed in the second annual Traditional Games in March 2019 at Thunder Mountain High School.
In total, more than 100 athletes registered for this year’s Traditional Games. Sixty-four of those athletes were from outside Juneau. Athletes traveled from as far as Bethel, Anchorage, Metlakatla, Ketchikan, Yakutat, Hoonah, Northern Arizona University, and Whitehorse to compete, making it the first time Southeast Alaska hosted a statewide Indigenous sports event.
Athletes from Metlakatla, Whitehorse, and Anchorage walk in the athlete parade at the beginning of the 2019 Traditional Games. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
New to this year’s Traditional Games was the introduction of the Nalukataq, or blanket toss. To do a blanket toss, at least 30 people hold onto the loops on the side of a seal-skin blanket and pull in unison, lifting an athlete into the air who then has to try and land on their feet.
Blanket pullers launch an athlete into the air in a blanket toss at the Traditional Games in Juneau. This blanket was made with 13 bearded seals and borrowed from the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics by official Shannon Hawkins. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Reggie Joule, an Alaska Sports Hall of Famer and former Nalukataq champion from Kotzebue, offered this advice to NYO athletes during the opening remarks:
“Use your mind’s eye…. Watch yourself be successful. When you run a race you don’t run a race to the finishing tape, you run past it. See your way through it. See yourself be successful. And on any given day, the level of effort you should put into it is to be the best that you can be, and you’ll never lose, irregardless of the outcome.”
In the Traditional Games, athletes are able to compete in all events, whereas at the state NYO Games, athletes are limited to 1-4 games for which they qualified for at their local meet. The events athletes compete in include the Scissor Broad Jump, Kneel Jump, Wrist Carry, One Foot High Kick, Dené Stick Pull, Inuit Stick Pull, Two Foot High Kick, One Hand Reach, Alaskan High Kick, Seal Hop, and Knuckle Hop. Click here to learn about how each game traditionally honed people’s strength, agility, balance, endurance and focus and helped them to survive and thrive in the Arctic.
Dené Stick Pull at the Traditional Games in Juneau. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Two Foot High Kick at the Traditional Games in Juneau. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
One Hand Reach at the Traditional Games in Juneau. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Knuckle Hop at the Traditional Games in Juneau. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Inuit Stick Pull at the Traditional Games in Juneau. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Scissor Broad Jump at the Traditional Games in Juneau. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Seal Hop at the Traditional Games in Juneau. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Wrist Carry at the Traditional Games in Juneau. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Alaskan High Kick at the Traditional Games in Juneau. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
At the Traditional Games in Juneau, Whitehorse’s Kate Koepke emerged as the Girls Best Overall athlete, with eight gold medals, and Bethel’s Nicholas Twito won the Boys Best Overall title with three golds. TMHS’ Matthew Quinto and Unalakleet’s Makiyan Ivanoff each won four gold medals. Teams from Bethel and Whitehorse garnered the most points in the large team and small team categories, respectively.
The 2019 Traditional Games provided an opportunity for communities who had not competed in a while to start training again and to have new competition, according to Worl.
“The Traditional Games is not just a two-day event,” said Worl. “It provides opportunities for communities to set up their own NYO teams.”
Team Ketchikan at the NYO Games in Anchorage. Photo courtesy of Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC).
One community who formed a team again was Ketchikan, who attended the 2019 Traditional Games and then the statewide NYO Games for the first time in 20 years.
After the Traditional Games, athletes who made Team Juneau had just over a month left of training before the statewide NYO Games. The 12 athletes who made it onto Team Juneau were Erick Jim, Josh Sheakley, Skylar Tuckwood, Andrew Ostman, Sara Steeves, Kellie James, Matthew Quinto, Kyle Abbott, Ezra Elisoff, Sterling Zuboff, Shane Paul, and Ashton Oyloe.
One Foot High Kick, left, and the Kneel Jump, right, at the NYO Games in Anchorage. Photos courtesy of Michael Dinneen.
At the statewide competition, Team Juneau’s Matthew Quinto earned a bronze medal for the Kneel Jump and Sterling Zuboff earned fifth place in Eskimo Stick Pull. Additionally, Team Juneau’s coach Kyle Worl received the Healthy Coach award for the second year in a row.
Left: Kneel Jump award podium at the NYO Games. Photo courtesy of CITC.
Right: Coach Kyle Worl with the Healthy Coach Award at the NYO Games. Photo courtesy of Michael Dinneen.
Native Youth Olympics is not about beating other competitors, but achieving one’s personal best.
“What makes NYO a unique modern sport is not only that it is based off of Indigenous hunting and survival skills,” said Worl, “but that the spirit of the games is to learn from each other and support each other, no matter what team you’re on. Athletes cheer and give advice to their fellow athletes, even if it might mean they surpass you.”
Worl strives to make NYO an inclusive activity for all students, a space where they can find support from peers, mentorship from coaches, and a sense of belonging. Parents have commented to Worl that their child’s grades have improved since joining NYO and that they are embracing their Native identity for the first time.
Coach Kaytlynne Lewis, left, and athlete Sara Steeves, right, at the 2019 NYO Games. Photo courtesy of Michael Dinneen.
The increase in the number of students participating and regularly attending practices shows the success of the NYO program. There are 25 high school students who regularly attend practices, over twice as much participation as last year, and 25 students attending in the middle schools.
“These games continue to support our youth in the modern world to build determination, confidence, healthy living habits, and a stronger sense of their cultural identity,” said Worl. “This has included students gaining new interest to learn subsistence practices and even learn their Native language.”
Sterling Zuboff practicing Eskimo Stick Pull for the NYO Games. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.
Team Juneau athletes, Team Ketchikan coach Clint Shultz, and Sitka coach Hillary Nutting were able to travel to the NYO Games with the help of major sponsors Sealaska Heritage Institute, Sealaska, University of Alaska Southeast, and Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
Additional sponsors who helped with the 2019 Traditional Games are SEARHC, McGivney’s Sports Bar and Grill, Trickster Company, Juneau Community Council Tlingit & Haida, The Alaska Club, Alaska Native Sisterhood, Wooch Een, Goldbelt Heritage, Ketchikan School District, Zach Gordon Youth Center BAM Afterschool Activities, Juneau School District, Indian Studies Program, and the Alaska Native Brotherhood. Individual sponsors included Shannon Hawkins, Rod Worl, and Dawn Dinwoodie, among others.