Local athletes anxious for games

Arctic Winter Games a memorable experience for athletes, coaches

Posted: Friday, February 26, 2010

There is more than winning when athletes stand atop the medal podium at the Arctic Winter Games, hearing their country's national anthem played.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

There is pride, of course, but for many who journey to the bi-annual competition, there is the applause and a reason to applaud athletes and new friends from different countries.

"It was pretty cool," Juneau-Douglas High School senior Annika Ord said of twice winning top honors at the 2006 event in Kenai and 2008 event in Yellowknife.

Ord will attend this year with her father, Peter, Team Alaska's alpine ski coach; mother, Mary, who will be a soccer team chaperone; and sister, Rebekka, who competed in gymnastics in '08 but is playing soccer this trip.

"I think that experiencing the tournament and playing soccer against all the new people from different countries is more interesting - all the culture and the new friends," Rebekka Ord said. "Working up to winning and the hard work of the games is more interesting."

More than 40 Juneau athletes will make their march into the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Arctic Winter Games in a quest for more than just the coveted gold, silver or bronze ulu presented to top finishers.

The competitors from Juneau represent not only Alaska, but also the United States in their sportsmanship, dedication and willingness to learn what the games are all about: The joy of sport.

"It is really new to me, but the fact that it is so traditional is really exciting," Fourteen-year-old Amalia Tamone said of preparing to compete in snowshoeing. "It is really hard. It uses muscles that you don't usually use and you really have to concentrate on where to place your feet. Plus getting to compete against people from Russia, Greenland and Canada is pretty cool. I have been running with my mom since five and I am faster than she is now."

The March 6-13 games take place in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada.

The event 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.

More than 2,000 athletes across the circumpolar north participate.

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.

This is soccer coach Gary Lehnhart's fourth event in a row.

He has attended at Wood Buffalo, Kenai and Yellowknife.

His daughters, Carly and Brittany, have played in the games, even writing college essays about the experience.

This year, Lehnhart brings soccer-playing sons, Taylor and Jackson.

"It's as close to an Olympic experience as most of us will ever get, and it is really treated that way," Lehnhart said. "You get a strong sense of community within the team and the entire thing is a giant community.

"As hokey as it sounds," he continued, "in the opening ceremony, seeing everybody wearing their get-ups and walking in the parade - and the entertainers, dancing - all of it is pretty cool."

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.

The Lehnhart family members said it is the preeminent athletic experience of their lives. The experience intensifies when a gold ulu is won and the national anthem plays.

"It makes me more excited to go, hearing my younger brother's stories of meeting kids from other countries from his games two years ago," Taylor Lehnhart said. "I am really interested in watching all the different events and meeting the different people from Greenland and Russia. ... it will be really cool to play against people from outside the United States."

• Contact Klas Stolpe at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.

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