Last week, White Mountain, about 60 miles east of Nome, hosted thirteen teams for the Bering Strait School District’s regional Native Youth Olympics, or NYO, including Teller, Brevig Mission, Unalakleet, and Savoonga.
Practice for the Teller Aklaqs — Inupiaq for “Brown Bears” — typically starts in March. But for eleventh-grader Lauryn Garnie, NYO is a year-round sport.
“In the summertime, I try to keep in shape,” she said, “and I join all the other sports to try to keep in shape in the school year, too.”
She sits across from me at a table in the White Mountain School cafeteria, taking a break while other athletes compete in the Alaska High Kick next door in the gym. This year, Lauryn won’t be competing in any of the high kicks, due to a fractured ankle from basketball season. But the injury isn’t keeping her away from her favorite event: One-Hand Reach.
“One-Hand Reach I won two years in a row, and this year might be my third, if I win,” she said. “At practice, I’ve been getting the district record or beating it by, like, half an inch.”
In One-Hand Reach, athletes must “balance their weight on the palm or knuckles, reach with their free hand to touch a suspended ball, then place their free hand on the floor — without otherwise touching the floor.” The ball is raised 4 inches after each round.
If it sounds painful, it is.
“Trying to keep your body up on one hand hurts my legs,” she said. “I always cramp up when I’m reaching, but you gotta reach through it.”
Lauryn did end up reaching through, and winning, One-Hand Reach — with a total height of 55 inches. The state record for girls is 62 inches.
But for her, and many of her fellow athletes who love NYO, it’s not all about the competition aspect of the games. When I ask Lauryn to tell me about her team, she lights up.
“It’s a pretty young team, and they all really like it,” she said. “They stuck with it. And we all help each other out at practice. We tell each other what we need to do to go farther or be better. They really support each other and they’re mostly seventh graders.”
Tamara Ablowaluk is an 8th grader on Lauryn’s team who echoes the support she feels from the Teller Aklaqs.
“They’re helpful; they really like to help and encourage,” she said. “They say we can do it: ‘try your best.'”
Summer Sagoonick is a senior on the Unalakleet team. Like Lauryn, her favorite event is One-Hand Reach.
“Because I’ve become, I don’t want to say a pro, but I’ve become kind of good at it,” she said, “and I also think it’s something that tests out a lot of skills: balance, core…”
Summer is modest when she talks about her own ability: for One-Hand Reach, she’s not just “kind of” good. She came in second place, at 54 inches.
Unalakleet’s team is made up of 12 athletes this year, a few of whom are brand new to NYO. She says the whole team is really strong this year, and she’s quick to point out one of her teammates in particular.
“I would like to highlight Allie Ivanoff; she broke a lot of records last year: for One-Foot, Two-Foot, Scissor Broad,” she said. “I think she’s a great, athletic person, and she’s doing great.”
According to district records, Allie has since tied district record-holder Crystal Newhall Campbell for the most gold medals in the district’s NYO history: 14. And she was awarded Most Outstanding Female Athlete this year.
Summer’s mom, Melanie Sagoonick, watches her daughter from the bleachers. She has followed Summer around the state to watch her compete in basketball, volleyball, and NYO, and she says many of her coworkers in Unalakleet donated airline miles to help make it possible.
She says what she loves about NYO, and what makes it unique, is sportsmanship.
“(There’s) wonderful sportsmanship,” she said, “you know, they all cheer each other on. They encourage each other. It’s not only kids but the coaches as well. It’s nice to see that.”
Coach Darci Kingeekuk from Savoonga has been coaching for 10 years, and before that, she was an NYO athlete herself, from 7th grade all the way up to graduation.
“It’s pretty exciting,” she said. “I like coaching. I get excited for the kids, especially if they’re excited for themselves when they say they beat their personal best. I’m excited with them. I’m happy for them.”
Kingeekuk notes that this year is the biggest team for Savoonga in a while, something she credits to her teaching NYO to the elementary school kids a few years back.
If you ask Darci, who started practicing for the Alaskan High Kick back in kindergarten, no age is too young to get kids started in NYO games.
“I have a two-year-old son I’ve been teaching since he was a baby,” she said. “I have a video of him doing some of these (events). I bring him to practice every now and then.”
Edward Tocktoo is the coach for the Brevig Mission Huskies. To him, NYO’s spirit of community and support is a direct reflection of the rural communities and traditional values the games are tied to.
“They interact with each other,” he said. “Younger and older kids — they help each other out. Just like our villages … we all help each other out. It starts off with our grandparents, and we just obey from there on. I hope it will continue, because our generations are starting to change a lot now, but we still try to represent our traditional values on our youngsters, and it’s still strong.”
Traditional community values are certainly felt in White Mountain over the course of the event — one that brought over 100 people to the 238-person village. Principal David Fair and community members made 15 trips on snowmachines to the airport to pick up NYO teams, who also all spend the night in the small school. White Mountain community members brought things like pickled muktuk, oranges, and caribou to stock the hospitality room for visitors to enjoy.
Feeding all of these additional people takes a large effort, and Rose Titus, the school cook, happily dishes out tray after tray of her homemade meals, like moose spaghetti, to hungry kids, parents, and spectators. She serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day of the event. On a normal school day, Rose starts her day around 8 to make breakfast.
“When we have big events like this, I come at 6:30 and start cooking breakfast so I can be on time,” she said. “If I come later, you’re already waiting to eat! So I come at 6:30 and start cooking breakfast.”
But she has help in the kitchen, too: from NYO athletes. Each team pitches in to cover the cleanup after a meal.
“They wash dishes, dry them,” Rose said. “They clear the tables. And if we have to sweep, they’ll sweep.”
In the kitchen after lunch that afternoon is Earl Annogiyuk, laughing with his Savoonga teammates as they wash dishes.
Back in the gym, Earl, a senior, has quite the fan base. Whenever it’s his turn to compete, the crowd goes wild.
He steps up for the Scissor Broad Jump, which requires athletes to cover as much distance as they can, making four continuous hops without losing balance. The crowd quiets down so he can concentrate.
Earl crosses the gym — 33 feet 11.5 inches — and plants his feet on the gym floor in one final thud.
Earl finished in first place for four different events this year: Scissor Broad Jump, Wrist Carry, One-Hand Reach, and Alaskan High Kick. He also got awards for Most Outstanding Male Athlete and Most Inspirational Athlete. When I get a word with him, he’s quiet and modest.
“I just want to say good luck to everyone; everyone tries their best. Everyone did their best,” he said.
The top-placing district athletes head to the State NYO meet in Anchorage on Friday.
Watch this video of Juneau students practicing some of the events featured in the Native Youth Olympics in 2017: