NYO Games participants showcase athletic prowess
The target in the Alaskan high kick at the Native Youth Olympic Games isn’t impressive by itself. It’s a little ball suspended above the ground. In the early rounds, it’s below eye level if you stand beside it. But the athletes in this event won’t be standing. They are seated and launch themselves into a one-handed handstand to deftly touch the ball with one foot. The best competitors can reach targets suspended well above the heads of everyone in the audience. The world record is around 8 feet. These are the kind of athletic feats that make the NYO Games special: seemingly simple tasks stretched to the most extraordinary limits of human physical ability.
Started in 1972, the NYO Games, known in the early years as the Native Youth Olympics, include 10 events based on games past generations of Alaska Native people played as a way to hone their hunting and survival skills, increase strength and maintain endurance, agility and the balance of mind and body. The Eskimo stick pull, for instance, is based on a strengthening exercise that Native hunters would do to prepare themselves for pulling seals out of the water. Although events are based on traditional Alaska Native activities, the competition is open to all Alaska students from seventh to 12th grade, regardless of ethnicity.
It’s an insight into Alaska’s rich cultural heritage and a friendly competition for Alaska kids all at once. About 500 students from across the state assemble in Anchorage each spring to demonstrate their skills. This year’s games will be held April 25-27 in the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center. Admission is free, so come cheer on the athletes.
There’s a reason the NYO Games can inspire a hushed awe; the concentration is extreme, and you won’t see athletes in any other sport accomplish what some of these kids can do. The best can hop 150 feet across a hardwood floor on their knuckles (the seal hop), hang on to a stick with only a bent wrist for minutes as their teammates carry them (wrist carry) or balance all their weight on a single hand while stretching for a ball suspended almost 6 feet over their head (one-hand reach). And if you’re thinking, “I could do that,” well, I dare you to give it a try.
The premise of each event seems simple – touch the ball, jump high, hold on for as long as you can – but as the height of the target increases or the distance required to advance widens, the skills quickly approach the superhuman. Attempting an event yourself might leave you breathing hard, but watching these young men and women compete will almost certainly take your breath away.
NATIVE YOUTH OLYMPICS
The Native Youth Olympic Games is set for April 25-27 at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage. Admission is free. For more details, go to citci.org/event-programs/nyo-games