PUBLISHED: 4:39 PM on Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Native Youth Olympics takes hold in Juneau
Mendenhall River Community School

Photo by Amy Steffian
  Naavah Spady participates in the Two-foot High Kick with help from judge Ricardo Worl.
Jumping, hopping and pulling aren't just playground fun, they are skills that have been essential to survival in Alaska for generations. At the recent Junior Native Youth Olympics competition, hosted by Mendenhall River School, students tested their talents at games designed around these age-old skills.

Parent and friends filled in the Mendenhall River Community School gym in March, where Ricardo Worl, a member of the Thunderbird Clan of Klukwan, a former Native Youth Olympian, and one of the event organizers, explained the origins and significance of the games.

"The Native Youth Olympics originated from games created in northern Alaska more than 2,000 years ago to teach strength, agility, and endurance," he said.

"Think about hundreds of years ago when you had to hunt for your food. If you were out on the ice, and your weren't quick on your feet, you wouldn't survive."

Photo by Amanda Gragert
  Alaska State Congressman Reggie Joule of Kotzebue, himself a ten-time Native Youth Olympics gold medalist, watches the stick pull.
Thirteen Mendenhall River School students clad in royal blue T-shirts participated in this year's Junior Native Youth Olympics, competing against each other and a large contingent from Riverbend School. Led by physical education Teacher Carol Fujioka, the MRCS students were part of an after school club devoted entirely to preparing for the games. With just a month to get ready, each student focused on training a single event. The two-foot high kick was one of the most popular.

In this game that mimics a traditional way of sending messages across the tundra, competitors must jump high into the air with both feet together to kick a ball suspended from a string. Each contestant gets three tries, and if successful, lines up to take another turn with the ball raised an inch.

Surprisingly limber students such as Mendenhall River first grader Naavah Spady vaulted themselves in the air, swinging their arms over their heads for added momentum. Just as Naavah reached the top of her jump, she jackknifed gracefully, bending at the waist to raise her feet toward the suspended ball. A gentle kick sent the ball swaying before she descended to the gym floor and made the mandatory two-foot landing.

"Those children are positively springy," said one parent watching the competitors.

Other games included the Alaskan high-kick, the one-foot high kick, the stick pull, the seal hop, and the scissor broad jump. Judging help came from Fujioka, Worl, Riverbend team coach Scott May, and Alaska State Congressman Reggie Joule of Kotzebue, himself a ten-time Native Youth Olympics gold medalist. The Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority and Goldbelt, Inc., sponsored the event, providing sports drinks, medals for event winners, and a ticket to ride the tram for every participant.

Fujioka, who helped to establish the games in Juneau, noted that they are in their infancy. "Juneau has never sent a team to the Junior Native Youth Olympics in Anchorage" she said. "This is just our second year, but we tripled the number of students who participated."

"Next year!" Fujioka said to one young audience member who enthusiastically hopped his way out of the gym.