'I felt like I needed it'; Dillingham athletes say this year's NYO Games more important than ever

Apr 7, 2021

“We’re still a team, we’re still working together, and they’re just resilient. They’re so resilient. And although that’s a lot of positives, they’ve just overcome that big challenge," said Coach Amanda Luiten. 

Cadence Dray kicks as Alex Buholm watches
Credit Brian Venua/KDLG

This spring, Dillingham sophomore Cadence Dray decided to join the Native Youth Olympics for the first time in years.

“I felt like I needed it, you know, just to get into the gym more often and not be isolated," she said.

Dray’s first events are the alaskan high kick and the scissor broad jump  a series of jumps that was traditionally used to practice balance when jumping on ice floes. Dray said the pandemic has changed how they practice and compete, but she’s still happy to participate.

“It’s pretty different, but it’s pretty good to go in the gym and kick and jump,” she said.

Normally, teams of athletes from around the state travel to Anchorage to compete in the Native Youth Olympics (which it's host and sponsor, the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, now refers to as the NYO Games). But pandemic restrictions mean the competition is virtual for the second year in a row.

Thomas Tinker during Alaskan High Kick
Credit Brian Venua/KDLG

  The NYO Games are based on traditional contests to test and hone survival skills. Central to the tradition is the idea that athletes support their teammates, and those on other teams as well. 

Coach Amanda Luiten said that NYO offers students a different approach to competition and sportsmanship.

“While someone’s competing next to someone, they’re also encouraging them and helping them at the same time and boost themselves up,” she said.

The Dillingham team started practice in early March. But competing at home without athletes from other communities is tough.

“A big thing with NYO is getting to know so many people across Alaska and other teams, and they’re not getting that this year," she said. "It’s just a whole community that usually comes together. So now we’re coming together virtual. But it’s not easy for them.”

This year, eighth grader Braxton Peters is competing in the games for the first time. He said the cultural history of the games sets them apart from other sports.

“It’s fun doing practice with all the other people," he said. "I like how it’s about how Natives here used to do stuff in the past.”

Graelin Chaney kicks as Demetry Hoseth, Ethan Jenkins, and Ty Kolbe watch.
Credit Brian Venua/KDLG

The first event is the Alaskan High Kick. If you haven’t seen it, it looks impossible to do.

First, the athlete crouches down and balances on one foot. They grab and hold their other foot. Then they lean back and swiftly jump and kick up with the foot they’re balancing on, aiming at a sealskin ball suspended on a string above their heads.

Athletes need both balance and strength because each round, the ball is raised higher and higher.

Jake Neketa mid-fall as Graelin Chaney and Ty Kolbe carry.
Credit Izzy Ross/KDLG

There are ten events in the senior games. Eighth grader Hailey Carty competes in all of them — her favorite is the one-foot high kick. But she’s a little nervous for wrist carry. For that contest, two people hold the ends of a stick and run, while a third person hangs from their wrist and holds their feet and legs off the ground.

“I kind of do both. But today I’m getting carried, or hanging," she explained.

Students have to wear masks when they compete, and only other athletes, coaches and volunteers are allowed in the gym. But Carty said that some things haven’t changed.

“I do it every year. And I understand it’s a little different, but I still wanted to be a part of the team and still be able to get practice in and watch myself improve and watch other people improve I guess.”

A lot of kids said the same thing  that being part of the team and spending time with their fellow athletes was important.

Demetry Hoseth kicks as Ty Kolbe, Coach Smeaton, and Evan Neketa III watch
Credit Brian Venua/KDLG

“It’s really good hanging out with the teammates and everything," said Demetry Hoseth, a junior. "Especially what’s going on this year. Everyone’s really positive and it’s really good to be around friends again.”

Changes to school and social life for students this year mean that opportunities to get together and work as a team are all the more valuable.

Senior Virginia Roque has competed in NYO since sixth grade, and this is her last year.

“I think it’s kind of a unique experience," she said. "We’re used to going to state around this time in Anchorage and having home meets, and now we can’t really do that. But we’re making the most of it.”

Coach Luiten said the kids have persevered through this year's challenges.

“We’re still a team, we’re still working together, and they’re just resilient. They’re so resilient," she said. "Although that’s a lot of positives, they’ve just overcome that big challenge, and quickly, too. Within just a month they’re finding new ways to still keep going.”

Dillingham’s final games will be on April 10, and statewide awards will be announced on April 16, 23, and 30.

You can watch videos of the events on the team’s Wolverine Facebook page

Contact the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.