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Inuit Games push athletes beyond pain and ‘I can’t’

One day very long ago, Edward Lennie was standing on a piece of sea ice when a crack ripped through the silence.

One day very long ago, Edward Lennie was standing on a piece of sea ice when a crack ripped through the silence.

“I’m out on the coast and there’s a crack, and the ice is drifting,” said the charismatic 70-year-old coach and elder on Sunday.

“I’m going towards it and I know I can still make it across, so I’m running; I can jump across … I’ve done it,” he said with a look of relief on his heavy salt-and-pepper brows.

“If I hesitated, that would have been the end of me. I would never be here.”

Lennie credits traditional games for giving him confidence and destroying the self-doubt saying ‘I can’t’ in the back of his mind.

He felt so strongly about the value of traditional sports that, during the lead up to the first Arctic Winter Games, held in Yellowknife in 1970, he pushed for aboriginal games to be included.

“I started thinking, ‘How can they name something (the Arctic Winter Games) when they’ve got nothing from the Arctic?’” asked Lennie, who lives in Inuvik.

Before his protests, the Arctic Winter Games were set to feature only southern sports, like basketball and hockey.

Lennie successfully lobbied to have traditional games included as demonstration events.

And the former athlete and longtime traditional-games coach was at FH Collins Secondary School in Whitehorse on Sunday to see another event include his beloved sports: the Canada Winter Games.

Whitehorse’s Games are the first ever to include traditional sports as a demonstration event, and will be the first to see the games broadcast across Canada as a result.

The high school’s gymnasium was packed with people out to see history in the making, including boisterous supporters from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

Each of the three northern territories is fielding a team in the five-day-long competition.

The Canada Winter Games feature eight medal sports, such as kneel jump, two-foot-high-kick and the arm pull, as well as the blanket toss, which is a demonstration sport.

Each is a test of strength and athleticism, but also of an athlete’s pain tolerance.

Speaker after speaker joked that those in the packed audience in the school’s gym may want to line up a chiropractor before giving the games a try.

Traditional games hurt because they push unused muscles, explained Lennie.

“You can do all the exercises you want, but there’s some lazy muscles in you that you never use,” he said with a grin. “These games open the door to that.”

It isn’t clear what muscles were being used for the games’ first event, kneel jump, which got underway immediately after the opening ceremonies.

The packed gym at FH Collins went silent, broken only by the ticking of a ventilation fan high in the ceiling and the buzzing of the fluorescent lights.

A skinny guy with broad shoulders and taught, muscular arms walked toward a line of tape on the wooden gym floor, his feet squeaking as he sought to rub any hint of dirt from his soles.

When he arrived at the line, he licked his hand and rubbed the spit on his shins and then on the floor with yet another squeak.

Then he kneeled at the line and began moving like a cobra dancing to the flute of a charmer, pulling his arms high above his head while simultaneously jutting his stomach far out in front of him.

Suddenly he jumped, thrusting his arms high in the air and pushing his feet forward.

The crowd erupted into applause.

Any competitor that loses his balance is disqualified.

One kid from the NWT jumped, landed, waited for the judges to mark his distance with a measuring tape, then ran to green mats on the gym floor and laid on his stomach in agony.

Nunavut’s James Qajaaqjuaq Tautu won gold in the men’s kneel jump on Sunday with a leap of 138.8 centimetres.

Team Yukon’s Joshua Karr, who lives in Vancouver, took the silver with a jump of 129.6 centimetres.

Rebecca Kunnaat Sammurtok, also from Nunavut, took gold in the female competition with a jump of 88.6 centimetres.

As the opening rounds got underway, Lennie got a bit emotional about seeing the games grow from such humble beginnings.

“It feels great,” he said, his eyes tearing up a bit. “This is one of the very few times I’m going to be watching instead of being out there coaching, and it’s going to be hard for me, but I have to learn to sit back and watch.”

The Inuit Games are being held at FH Collins Secondary School in Whitehorse. Parking is limited, so try to arrive by bus or walk from downtown.

Events run until Thursday.

After the Inuit Games end, the Dene Games begin — running from March 4 until March 10.