Team Alaska is ready to chase the gold, silver or bronze Ulu at the 2012 Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse B.C. beginning today. But the medals are not the most important factor in the bi-annual competition that brings together more than 2,000 athletes from across the circumpolar north to participate.
“The team this year is really a diverse group,” Tim Dillon, a member of the AWG Board of Directors, said “We have kids from Nome, Kotzebue, White Mountain, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau, just to name a few towns. Kids from all over the place, which is really sweet. The bottom line is this is going to be a great event for these young men and young ladies and that is the key.”
Gary Lehnart will be coaching soccer in his fifth AWG. He has been to 2004 Wood Buffalo, Alberta; 2006 Kenai, Alaska; 2008 Yellow Knife, Northwest Territories; and 2010 Grande Prairie, Alberta games.
“I have been cutting back on the various coaching activities I do as I have gotten older but this is one I have kept,” Lehnart said. “I really enjoy it. It is an extraordinary experience for kids especially but I get a lot out of it too. It has taken me a lot of different places and I have met a lot of incredible people. It is a network of guys from all over the world that I run into every two years.”
This is the first year Lehnart hasn’t gone with one of his children. Son Jackson Lehnart qualified for the Team Alaska table tennis team but is to busy with Crimson Bears basketball at the moment.
“In some respects it is a poor man’s Olympics,” Lehnart said. “Most of us will never get the chance to go to the Olympics. This is an Olympic type experience for the kids and coaches. You have the opening day parade and during the games there is a lot of camaraderie but it is also very competitive, and if you are fortunate to get into the medal round and win an Ulu it is something to stand up there and hear the national anthem played.”
Lehnart said the unusual events and taking his team to see them for the first time are one of the highlights. In the last games he took his soccer players to watch curling and the head of the venue took them all out to throw the rocks and slip on the ice.
This is Team Alaska soccer player Rebecca Ord’s third straight Arctic Winter Games. She attended the 2008 games in Yellowknife, Yukon Territories as a member of the gymnastics team. In 2010 she played soccer at Grande Prairie, Alberta.
“I am really excited,” Ord said. “It is really a lot of fun. It always has been. It is good competition and it is nice to meet these other people from different places that play the same sport you do. I always watch the native games, they are really fun to watch. The downside is I pack a lot of homework too.”
To qualify for the AWG, athletes cannot be members of their countries national team.
The AWG was founded in 1969 by former Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel, and commissioners James Smith, from the Yukon, and Stuart Hodgson, from Northwest Territories, who had concerns about lack of competition for northern athletes and coaches.
The first games were held in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, in 1970.
Invitations grew to include the current participants: Alaska, Greenland, Northern Alberta, Northwest Territories, Nunavik in Northern Quebec, Nunavut, Yukon, the Yamal-Nenets in Russia, and the Sami people who live in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
Focus is on youth participants, cultural events and 21 Arctic sports indigenous to the north, including Dene and Inuit games that allow some adult competitors.
Medals are crafted in the shape of the Inuit all-purpose knife, the Ulu, and are awarded in gold, silver and bronze.
In 1978, the Hodgson Trophy was introduced and given to the participating contingent that best embodied the ideals of fair play and team spirit. Alaska won in the first year, and in 1990 and 2006.
The various sports within the teams are housed together, usually in school classrooms near the events, where bunk beds have been brought.
Team pins and jackets are traded with other athletes from competing countries. The cafeteria and meeting hall become gathering places to sit down with people who speak different languages and wear different clothing.
“I wanted to go and play volleyball against a diverse group,” Krista Bontrager said. “I have talked to some of my teammates for the past couple of months and I am excited to play with them.”
Stuart Thurston is attending his second AWG and is competing in soccer, as he did in 2010 in Grande Prairie, Alberta.
“The most fun is going to see the people from all the other countries,” Thurston said. “And meeting new people.”
This is also Team Alaska snowshoer Riley Moser’s second AWG, he also attended the games in Grande Prairie, Alberta
“It is going to be really cool to see some of the people I met two years ago,” Moser said. “It will be a small reunion, something to catch up on. Snowshoeing is like running, just a lot harder.”
Continued Moser, “I really like the cultural aspects like how you get to meet all the new people and just seeing where all the different people come from and how they can relate to the sport you are doing.”
Members of Team Alaska from Juneau include Alpine Skiers Adrienne Audet and Shane Kelly; Figure skater Laurinne Balstad; Gymnast Naomi Welling; Hockey players Grant Ainsworth, Chase Barnum, Tod Baseden, Cole Cheesemen, Michael Dale, Billy Holbrook, Logan Hulse, Dalton L’Allier, Riley Leary, and Dillon Tomaro; Snowshoers Corbin Mitchell and Riley Moser; Soccer players Solana Ramos Ashe, Justin Bellagh, Rhys Coffee, Meranda Frenzel, Hayley Germeau, Ryan Hoover, Rylee Landen, Garrett Mayer, Katie Rae McKeown, Madelyne McKeown, Rebecca Ord, Benjamin Scudder, Jonathan Scudder, Ethan Seid, Nick Stewart, Tommy Thompson, Stuart Thurston, Ashenfu Tingley, and Gary Lehnart; Volleyball player Krista Bontrager; Wrestler Tanner Thain; and Mission staff chaperones Pamela Leary and Mary Hakala.
Sports at the AWG include: Arctic Sports (kneel jump, one hand reach, two foot high kick, arm pull, head pull, Alaskan high kick, blanket toss, triple jump, one foot high kick, airplane, sledge jump, knuckle hop), Dene Games (stick pull, finger pull, pole push, snowsnake, Dene hand games), Alpine Skiing, Badminton, Basketball, Biathlon, Cross Country Skiing, Curling, Dog Mushing, Figure Skating, Gymnastics, Hockey, Soccer, Snowboarding, Snowshoeing, Speed Skating, Table Tennis, Volleyball and Wrestling.
“Whenever you take a group of young people and take them to an international competition it is a great learning experience,” Dillon said. “Some of these young men and young ladies will never get another opportunity like this so you want to make it the best opportunity you can. It is not just about the athletic competition but the camaraderie and cultural activities and other things they get the chance to do.”