Eyes on a bigger prize

Athletes use Native Youth Olympics to train for Arctic Winter Games

Posted: Tuesday, April 27, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Adolph Paul of Kipnuk had won the past two years, and he knew the competition would be gunning for him.

So the 17-year-old junior from the Lower Kuskokwim School District trained intensely for about two weeks for the Native Youth Olympics. His event was the kneel jump, where kneeling athletes leap as far as they can to a standing position.

On Thursday, Paul jumped 65 1/4 inches, shattering the old record of 61 3/4 inches and winning the event for the third straight year.

"I can't tell my secret until I graduate. I have enough competition already," he said Friday.

Of the more than 400 students at the Native Youth Olympics, which took place at the University of Anchorage Alaska through Saturday, many are competing in the traditional games for little more than bragging rights. But for a few students like Paul, the games are a chance to make names for themselves before the highly selective Team Alaska is chosen for

the 2006 Arctic Winter Games.

The Arctic Winter Games are an athletic and cultural exchange between northern communities held every two years. The Kenai Peninsula will host the event in March 2006, marking the fifth time the games have come to Alaska.

That gives Paul and other young hopefuls about two years to impress the selection committee through competitions such as the Native Youth Olympics and the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, which will be held in June.

"This is where they get introduced," said Nicole Johnston, this year's head judge.

An adult team of six men and six women and a junior team of the same makeup will be selected for the 2006 Alaska team, Johnston said.

Native athletes are on the lookout for young talent, and next year's World Eskimo Indian Olympics are likely to be seen as de facto tryouts for the team. The World Eskimo Indian Olympics, also known as WEIO, take place in mid-July in Fairbanks each year. This summer's event is July 21-24.

"It's a very high level of competition," Johnston said.

Tony Pushruk coaches a team from the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council near Palmer. The team includes David Thomas, who took second place in this year's two-foot high kick behind Karl Frankson of Point Hope. Pushruk said Thomas has used the Native Youth Olympics each year to get better and better and will be ready to compete at a higher level.

"Now he makes it look effortless," Pushruk said. "I can tell kids how good they can be. I told this to David. I saw this potential."

The traditional games, with events names such as the seal hop and wrist carry, test strength and agility. They were developed by the ancestors of today's Alaska Natives to hone their Arctic survival skills.

The top events are the one- and two-foot high kicks, where an athlete attempts to kick a small ball hanging high in the air and land on his or her feet.

The two-foot high kick is Johnston's specialty. Her record 75-inch leap in the 1987 Native Youth Olympics still stands.

"It's important that these games are passed on from generation to generation," Johnston said. "These games were used to survive without amenities and conveniences. You couldn't just go to the store and pick up a pound of meat."

More than 50 schools from across Alaska are represented in this year's Native Youth Olympics, said Kristi Holmes, spokeswoman for games organizer Cook Inlet Tribal Council. All the students are between 14 and 17, and up to 20 percent are non-Native.

To most of the student athletes, the games are about reconnecting with their heritage. Brian Carl, an 18-year-old from Kipnuk, said he begins preparing for the games in March, immediately after basketball season.

His event is the one-hand reach, where he must touch a hanging ball with one hand while balancing his whole body on the other hand.

"We represent our ancestors," Carl said. "It doesn't come from the mind. Our heart tells us what to do."

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