Every year, hundreds of students from around the state gather in Anchorage for the Native Youth Olympics. But Juneau hasn’t sent a team in more than 30 years.
Recently, athletes gathered in a gym on the University of Alaska Southeast campus to test their skills.
For the Alaskan high kick, one of the main events in the Native Youth Olympics, athletes position themselves one by one beneath a small, furry ball hanging from a pole about 5 feet off the ground, squatting on one foot while holding the other with their hand.
Each athlete pushes off suddenly, kicking one foot into the air above their head while still holding the other, in a kind of pretzel-handstand.
Their foot meets the furry ball, leaving it swinging as they fall back to the ground.
The statewide competition tests strength, agility and, in some cases, pain endurance.
For the first time since 1983, Juneau is putting together a team.
Kyle Worl is the coach and leader behind the effort.
“The long term goal is to introduce NYO as a sport in the high school at the same level as any other sport where students can take part in this year after year,” Worl said. “And they can travel to state regionals, just like other events.”
Worl has been visiting Juneau high schools and recruiting students since the fall.
About a dozen of them practice twice a week at each school, mastering the events they hope to compete in at the state competition in April.
The games began in 1972 and are open to all high school students. One boy and one girl from each team compete in each event.
The games test skills that were key to survival for Alaska Natives.
Many events reflect subsistence hunting practices, like the Eskimo Stick Pull, the favorite of Juneau-Douglas High School senior Derrick Roberts. The game involves two opponents seated across from each other trying to pull a stick from the other’s grip. Roberts is undefeated so far.
“The event relates to pulling a seal up from the water after you harpooned it,” Roberts said. “I guess I’d be really good at helping people pull up seals.”
Sportsmanship is central to the games, because working together was traditionally critical to survival.
Worl said it’s part of what drew him to Native Youth Olympics.
“The games in a sense are very individualistic, since you’re competing against yourself,” he said. “But they’re done in a community setting so you have all the other athletes around you and they’re there to help you and support you.”
Worl didn’t get into Native sports until he was a senior in high school, but now he competes with other adults every year.
The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics are every summer and the international Arctic Winter Games take place in March. He routinely medals and holds a world record for an event similar to the high kick.
This winter, he’ll demonstrate several Native games at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
“I don’t think I would be as involved with my community if I didn’t get into Native games,” Worl said. “I don’t think I would be as concerned with my health and my fitness and that’s something that Native games has given me, is that motivation to stay in shape, to always challenge myself, to build my personal bests in each game.”
Kyle’s uncle Ricardo Worl was Juneau’s coach back in the 1980s. He said the games offer an alternative to typical high school sports. But, there’s more to it.
“The other important reason to have Native Youth Olympics in the schools, even though it’s open to non-Natives, is for the Native kids and for that Native identity,” he said. “It’s athletic, it’s positive, and it’s actually kind of cool.”
Tryouts for the team are March 30-31.
Worl hopes to bring between 10 and 20 high school students to Anchorage, so he plans to step up recruitment after winter break.
They’ll also look for ways to pay for the trip.
The team will fundraise and search for local sponsors. The Sealaska Heritage Institute already is helping out.
Watch a video showcasing the different events: