Manokotak's Shelby Nukwak-King on representing Bristol Bay at this year's Arctic Winter Games
The international Arctic Winter Games took place last month in Wood Buffalo, Alberta — the first time the games were held since 2018. Around 1,700 athletes from eight contingents across the circumpolar north gathered to participate in sports and cultural events.
One of those athletes was from Bristol Bay. Shelby Nukwak-King is a senior at Manokotak's Nunaniq School. She spoke with KDLG's Izzy Ross about her time at the games, a week before her eighteenth birthday.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Izzy Ross: Happy Birthday! What better time than now to discuss something that you did this year: You attended the Arctic Winter Games. And I'd love to start from the beginning. When did you decide that was something that you wanted to do?
Shelby Nukwak-King: My volleyball coach, Gayle Andrew, she showed me a link to the Arctic Winter Games site. And she told me that I should apply. So I applied, and I got accepted in the end of November,
Ross: For folks listening who might have heard about the Arctic Winter Games, but aren't quite sure what that is, what are they?
Nukwak-King: The Arctic Winter Games is different events. Everyone goes to one place, and there was six countries. I played volleyball. There were six teams, and we ended up getting second.
Ross: Congratulations on getting second in this tournament. What was that experience like for you? Traveling to Canada and participating in these games with a bunch of other countries — how was that?
Nukwak-King: It was really exciting. But I was also nervous, because I didn't know what to expect and how to feel. But I knew I was going to do good. I knew I would get along with other people. But it was always so crowded there, with all the athletes and all the athletic directors. It was pretty fun. I got to get used to the big crowds.
Ross: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, it's a huge shift to go from a small community like Manokotak to this huge tournament with, you know, thousands of people. We were talking a little bit earlier this week, and you mentioned it was your first time leaving Alaska.
Nukwak-King: Yeah, it was my first time leaving Alaska. And it was a huge step for me. I was definitely excited to leave Alaska and see how it is. And that was definitely a great opportunity.
Ross: So it was your first time leaving Alaska. As you mentioned, you were playing volleyball, you all got second in the tournament, which is pretty amazing. What was the biggest challenge for you during this competition, and during this whole experience?
Nukwak-King: Me and my teammates, we had one day out of the whole week to practice and get to know each other and how each other played. And that was like overwhelming. I didn't know who they were. But they all played against each other because they're 4A, 3A, 2A and I was only 1A girl on the volleyball team. So I had to get used to how they were playing.
I didn't play a game because I wanted to see how they play and see what I would be good at with them on the court so that we could get to know each other and we knew who played what, who was good at what so that we would work together to win. And it was super stressful, but I did it.
Ross: I'm really curious to hear a little bit more about that. When we were talking earlier, you'd mentioned that you had decided to sit out of one of the first games in order to observe how the team played and see where you would fit in best. What did you learn from observing them? Were there any specific things that you thought, 'I want to play that position,' or, 'This is how I'm going to change how I play volleyball'?
Nukwak-King: So I was originally supposed to be a setter, but then I didn't know how their front row worked. So I asked my coach if I could sit out the game and watch. And I watched how they played together and how one of the girls set to them. I told my coach that I do better being a back row player, so I ended up being with the libero with another girl and that was fun.
'Cause all that pressure on me — I was setting, I didn't want to ruin the chances of us playing good, because that was our first time together. And throughout my years of high school, I realized that I was better playing back row. And I told my coach that and she was okay with that. And it really worked out.
Ross: It sounded like a big moment for you: Leaving Alaska, doing something that you were nervous about, and just really putting yourself out there in this new experience. What was the biggest takeaway for you?
Nukwak-King: I'd say being the only person from Bristol Bay that went and competed in those games was really awesome. I tried to look for other people from Bristol Bay, but I was the only one. And I was surprised by that.
Ross: Being the only person from the region, how did that change your approach to the games? Did it affect you at all? Or were there any things that you took away from that?
Nukwak-King: It made me want to talk about our region and what we do here. Like how we fish, pick berries, all the other subsistence stuff that we do. It was really cool, because people from different parts of Alaska didn't really know what Bristol Bay was, what my village was named. And every time I told them where I was from they'd be like, 'Where are you from?' Like, I was pretty amazed, because I was able to tell them a lot about our region, and my village, and what I do.
Ross: I'm really happy that Bristol Bay had you out there representing. It's awesome. Are you thinking about applying to compete again? And would you recommend that other athletes in the region do so?
Nukwak-King: I definitely am going to apply again, but I'm going apply for the basketball games, because I know it would be super fun.
I definitely recommend other people from around Bristol Bay to go, because they are all strong and capable of doing it. And they're really good at sports. We're all competitive. And it would make a big impact on other people to want to go. I already had a few people asking me how it was and what they had to do to get an accepted to go in. And I would definitely recommend it for anyone who is willing to go. It's gonna be in Wasilla this next session.
Ross: And I heard that volleyball and basketball aren't the only sports that you play. It sounds like you're also going to compete in Native Youth Olympics this year.
Ross: What are your events there?
Nukwak-King: So I do Indian Stick Pull — I went to state for Indian Stick Pull last year. I just learned how to do Alaskan last year, Eskimo Stick Pull, Scissor Broad, Seal Hop.
Ross: Having competed in the Arctic Winter Games, is your approach to NYO any different? Are you excited to do something where there's going to be more folks from Bristol Bay? How are you feeling?
Nukwak-King: I'm excited to do it again. I watched the Arctic Games in Canada — it's basically NYO, they just named it something different — and they all encourage each other, even though they're competing against each other. They all encourage each other, they all give them tips. I want to do that when I do NYO this year. I'd like to encourage other people, give them tips if they need them. Because we all need help in some way, you know?
Ross: Absolutely. Shelby Nukwak-King, it's been such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for sharing some of your experience at the Arctic Winter Games. And good luck in NYO this year.
Nukwak-King: Thank you.
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