The coach of a snowshoe team headed to the Arctic Winter Games next month says there is more than just competition at stake for the eight teens representing the state.
"We want them to win at the Games, but it is about more than that," coach Merry Ellefson said. "Our philosophy is that the kids should have achieved a sense of camaraderie and fun when this is all over. It is about enjoying the great outdoors we have here and becoming a real team."
The Juneau representatives of the Team Alaska snowshoe group happen to be cross-country runners at Juneau-Douglas High School, where Ellefson is assistant cross-country coach. The teens have sacrificed their time and energy to become part of Alaska's nearly 400-person delegation to the Games, a celebration of sport and culture beginning March 4 with snowshoeing events in Kenai and Soldotna.
Snowshoe team members Tyler and Wesley Dinnan, Carly Craig, Isabel Bush and Hunter Brown met their coaches at the lower cross-country ski loop at Eaglecrest Thursday afternoon. The sun peeked below the surrounding peaks just as they geared up in their traditional snowshoes.
Team members helped each other strap down the snowshoes before taking to the nearly empty track. Heat rose from their bodies as they shuffled around the snow-packed winter wonderland, coaxed by Ellefson and assistant coach Guy Thibodeau, who held a stopwatch and monitored the group while on skis.
"These kids are working hard and having a great experience, just look at them out there training," said coach Merry Ellefson. "This is a ritual that we do two to three times a week after school and it has been great for their mind and body."
Training outdoors with the snowshoes has given us a competitive fitness edge, Craig said. She competed in Fort McMurray, Alberta during the 2004 Arctic Winter Games, when she was a sophomore. The team combined to win 14 ulus at those Games. Ulus are necklaces used like medals.
Craig said being a part of the team and having the ability to view an amazing cultural experience led her to participate again this year.
"Snowshoeing is a totally different movement than running because you have to pick your feet up," Craig said. "Especially with the traditional snowshoes, where climbing becomes very difficult. It is like two steps forward, then you fall back."
Haines resident J.J. Lende is one of three members not living in Juneau, is joined by another from Haines and one from the Palmer area. The sophomore at Haines High School is a cross-country runner who plays basketball, track and softball and is forced to snowshoe before school. This is her first year competing.
Lende said it was sometimes difficult to train far way from the rest of the team. She has skied in the buckwheat classic, which she admitted was the extent of her winter sports competition, something she wishes to change.
"I am stronger because I snowshoe in the morning before school, which makes me tired but helps with my endurance," Lende said. "I really enjoy being out in nature and gliding in the snow."
Lende said the Dinnan twins are really good. They led the pack in Thursday's practice.
"Tyler and Wesley will try to win," Lende said. "They are looking for good results."
Wesley and Tyler Dinnan are two graduating stars of the Juneau-Douglas High School cross country team. Tyler Dinnan won the Alaska boys state cross-country championship. He entered the history books as the first runner in school history to win an individual cross-country state championship. Wesley Dinnan took fourth place overall. This is actually the second