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Native Youth Olympics Inspire Camaraderie, Cooperation

Jenny Neyman

Kids from across southcentral Alaska met in Kenai over the weekend as part of the Native Youth Olympics (NYO) to stick pull, one-foot-kick and seal hop their way to victory.

Teams from Seward, Anchorage, Wasilla, Chickaloon, Ninilchik and the central Kenai Peninsula brought about 150 youth to compete.

Samford Strange was one of lead officials at the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s fifth annual NYO invitational event, held Jan. 20 through Jan. 22 at Mountain View Elementary School in Kenai.

“The biggest thing, what we inspire and want the games to be, is the camaraderie you have here. It’s like a big family and what’s so unique about these games here is the fact of the sportsmanship,” said Strange.

Douglas Gates, a youth advocate and NYO coach with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, says the program stresses cooperation over competition.

“We just want to go out there and compete and have fun, do your best. There are times it’s good to be competitive. There are times it’s good to just work together. Even if you’re trying to go higher, you still have that spirit of cooperation between teams,” said Gates.

Nicole Johnston, sharing officiating duties with Strange, says it was the community aspect of NYO that got her hooked 30 some years ago.

“Once you come into this community of Native athletes and the rich history and culture behind it, you become part of the family,” said Johnston.

Johnston tied the record and won the statewide two-foot high kick event in her first NYO competition in seventh grade. Since then she medaled in many events and set a new two-foot high kick record that stood for 25 years. She’s also being inducted into the 2017 class of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame for her many NYO achievements and contributions.

“That healthy environment, you just can’t beat that,” said Johnston.

On the Kenaitze team, sixth graders Joseph Whittom and Cooper Bernard say they got into NYO for the personal challenge of the games and the fun and friendship of the program.

Whittom and Bernard competed against each other in the last event of the weekend: the seal hop. Participants start out lying on their stomachs, do a push-up into a plank position then hop forward on their hands and toes for as long and far as they can.

Whittom was hoping to beat his personal best by making it at least to half court. Beyond that, he wanted Bernard to win.

“Just because I wanted him to feel good and that would make me feel good,” said Whittom.

Whittom and Bernard both made it to about the three-point line. With a fist bump, the two celebrated victory for each other, even though they wouldn’t know until the awards ceremony who had won.

The winner didn’t seem to matter; other competitors were taking their turns and they had more cheering to do.

Jenny reports on the Kenai Peninsula Borough and other stories in the Central Kenai Peninsula for KBBI.