Petersburg’s NYO team poses with celebrity Nick Hansen (“Eskimo Ninja” from American Ninja Warrior) at the Traditional Games in Juneau. (Photo courtesy of Jaime Cabral)

Native Youth Olympics is inspiring Petersburg students who are trying it for the first time. The middle school brought home medals from the Traditional Games held in Juneau, April 2-3. It was the first in-person competition the local team had ever been a part of. KFSK’s Angela Denning reports:

Petersburg’s NYO team is only a few years old. Jaime Cabral began coaching the sport last year and most of his training’s been virtual.

This year, practices started up in January and about 17 students tried it out. By April a core group of seven 7th and 8th graders wanted to attend the Juneau tournament. The event lasted two full days and Cabral says it was an invaluable experience.

“It was amazing,” Cabral said. “Not only them learning and participating but also for myself.”

Teams from Southeast participated along with several from up north including Bethel, Nome, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Homer, and Seward.  

Many NYO events have challenges that include jumping, pulling or hanging. They all require balance and focus. They’re based on hunting and survival skills of the Indigenous people in Alaska and the Arctic.

7th grader Maria Toth took first place in the wrist hang. The event required Toth to hang her entire weight on one wrist hooked onto a one-inch wooden pole. She lasted for nearly 12 seconds.

“It’s really like weird feeling,” Toth said. “For me whenever I do the wrist carry I don’t really feel too much pain because my wrist just gets completely numb.”

She’s not exactly sure how she won but says she has learned to try and not think too much while hanging.

“I usually close my eyes and I don’t really think about anything,” Toth said. “It’s just my mind is completely a blank black slate; just like fog all over. And I just kind of just listen to everybody around me. That’s all I really do to just not really focus on my body.”

8th grader Heidi Brantuas took second place in the Inuit stick pull. She sat across from her opponents, the soles of their feet touching.

“And then you have a stick in between you,” she explained. “One person has the inside and one person has the outside. And then you pull and whoever comes off their butt first or falls over or gets the stick ripped out of their hand is the loser and the other person is the winner. And it’s best out of three.”

Another favorite event of Brantuas’ is the kneel jump. It’s where a person starts on their knees with the tops of their feet flat on the gym floor. Then they jump up and forward.

“I love it because it was the thing that was the most challenging for me last year and I just couldn’t get up off my knees last year but this year I finally was able to and I got a pretty good distance,” Brantuas said.

She practiced on a wrestling mat until she got the technique down.

7th grader Nicole Durgan competed in about a half dozen events. She’s the only Alaska Native on the Petersburg team so the Juneau tournament was particularly meaningful to her.

“It’s just such a fun game, I love it so much,” she said. “I’m the only person with like my main ethnicity being Native so it was really nice to see a lot of really good competitors that were like very Native and it was really nice.”

Another Petersburg student to medal was 8th grader Ahni Romine who took third place in the one arm reach. In that event, the athlete balances their entire body on the palm of one hand and reaches up with the other to touch a hanging seal-skin ball.

Juneau was the first time that Romine had ever even tried it.

“It’s not like other sports that are more stressful against two teams,” Romine said. “And everyone is trying to help each other out and no one, like, gets upset.”

She finished at 30 inches. She says the officials were kind and helped her understand it.

Her teammates also noticed the supportive environment.

“Everyone’s just cheering everyone on, no matter what team they’re on or what place they got,” Brantuas said.

“Even the people who are on the same team as the other people would cheer for both people,” said Durgan.

“It was probably the most sportsmanship I’ve ever seen in like any other sport,” Romine said.

The students love the sport so much that Coach Cabral says he plans to start a high school team in Petersburg. He also hopes to get it into the P.E. program.

The Juneau tournament was sponsored by Sealaska Heritage Institute, the University of Alaska Southeast, and the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.